The Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA) is battling what it sees as a power grab by the Turkish government. On 27 August, the government issued a decree that would strip the academy of its autonomy by having other bodies appoint most of its members and making its presidency an appointed position. In response, members have threatened to resign en masse and start a new academy.
The changes, TÜBA President Yücel Kanpolat writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider, are "destroying the most important aspect of this scientific institution." In a statement issued last week, the academy said that "through this action TÜBA has been terminated as an Academy" and that "a new Turkish Academy of Sciences has been established under governmental management."
In a letter sent to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan today, the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies  says it's "deeply distressed" by the decree and asks Erdoğan to "quickly reverse" it. "Any legitimate, respected national academy is self-governing," the network writes.
The decree—issued just after the start of a 9-day holiday period—says that from now on, one-third of new academy members will be appointed by the government and one-third by the Council of Higher Education, a body that is also under the government's control. The rest will be elected by sitting members. That change will almost triple, to 300 members, the current size of the organization. TÜBA's president will no longer be elected by other academicians, but appointed by the government, and honorary members will lose their voting rights in the General Assembly.
Kanpolat says the government has offered no rationale for the sweeping changes, leading to speculation about its reasons. He believes the government isn't trying to mute the academy's positions on sensitive issues like evolution, which have clashed with Islamic groups' views in the past. Instead, he says, the government is on a campaign "to penetrate into the independence of institutions. … TÜBA has been one of the last of those institutions." (The independence of Turkey's Scientific and Technological Research Council had already been "gutted", says Taner Edis, a Turkish physicist at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri.)
Ayse Erzan, a physicist at Istanbul Technical University and a TÜBA member, agrees. "I don't think this has anything to do with science versus religion," she says. Erzan believes it may be a "naïve" attempt to make Turkish science more "utilitarian." The decree stipulates that TÜBA can start and run new research institutes, and Erzan suspects the government wants the academy to get more involved in applied research leading to technological innovation.
Kanpolat says that the government has the authority to change the academy's structure because it is a publicly funded agency. Although the academy itself cannot appeal the decision, the changes could be challenged at Turkey's Constitutional Court, the ultimate arbiter of Turkish laws, by political parties or members of parliament, he says.
For now, academy members are hoping to persuade the government to reconsider its decision. At meetings in Istanbul and Ankara last week, they discussed walking out en masse and founding a new academy, but decided to first alert Turkish President Abdullah Gül to the "possible detrimental effects of such a dual identity." A new academy would be hampered by its lack of government funding, notes Erol Gelenbe, a computer scientist at Imperial College London and a TÜBA member.
Kanpolat's 3-year tenure was scheduled to end in December, when the academy's General Assembly would have chosen a successor. The decree has put an immediate end to his term but allows him to stay on until the government names a successor, and Kanpolat plans to do so. "I do not think I can leave the academy without leadership at such a time of uncertainty," he says.
The Amsterdam-based European Federation of National Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA ) has not yet discussed the issue, says Executive Director Rüdinger Klein. "We would have to get a formal request from the Turkish Academy to get involved," Klein says.