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Chemists in Turkey cope with political purging

Scientists, including those who dropped out of the ACS national meeting in Philadelphia, face an uncertain future

by Jyllian Kemsley
August 29, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 34

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Presenters from Turkey withdrew five posters and six talks from this month’s ACS national meeting in Philadelphia.
Photo of a poster board with a note saying withdrawn.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Presenters from Turkey withdrew five posters and six talks from this month’s ACS national meeting in Philadelphia.

Seven scientists from Turkey withdrew from presenting at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia, according to the society’s Membership & Scientific Advancement Division. Twenty-eight authors with addresses in Turkey had registered to present at the conference, which took place Aug. 21–25. The withdrawals follow a failed coup in Turkey on July 15 that triggered a purging of alleged coup supporters.

National Public Radio reported on Aug. 20 that government officials had detained 40,029 people for questioning and formally arrested 20,355 of them, although only 5,187 were still in custody. Tens of thousands more have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs for alleged support of Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the coup attempt.

Although those initially targeted for purging worked in the government, military, police force, judiciary system, education sector, and media, the expulsion has expanded to the business sector. On Aug. 16, police raided 44 companies and issued warrants for the arrest of 120 company executives, the Associated Press reported.

C&EN, which is published by ACS, reached out to national meeting attendees as well as more than 160 society members with addresses in Turkey to learn how chemists in the country are faring. To protect those who responded from potential harm, C&EN is not releasing their names.

“Even if you are not involved with the coup and have never supported the organization that allegedly prepared the coup event, you may lose your job or even be jailed due to false statements by a rival or due to false blame by anybody holding a personal grudge,” says a chemistry professor from Turkey who asked to be identified only as Ahmet. “Also, I am worried that the administrative positions in the universities, public institutions, and ministries related to education, the economy, and scientific research will be filled with people whose sole merit is their allegiance to the political party currently in power.”

Gülen, who has been accused of spearheading the coup, has lived in exile in the U.S. for nearly two decades. He was once an ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but their relationship soured in 2013. Gülen denies that he was responsible for the coup attempt, and Turkey experts are also skeptical that he was involved.

“It wouldn’t make sense for the Gülen movement to try to do it,” especially given its commitment to nonviolence and dialogue, says Gareth H. Jenkins, a senior research fellow in the Silk Road Studies Program of the Institute for Security & Development Policy. Additionally, among confessions released by the Turkish government—confessions likely given under duress—“We have people saying, ‘Yes, I participated,’ or ‘Yes, I wanted to participate,’ or ‘I was ordered by my commanding officer.’ We don’t have anybody who’s confessed so far, who’s said: ‘I’m a member of the Gülen movement, and we organized the coup,’ ” Jenkins says.

Maybe it’s in a different language, but chemistry is chemistry.
Gareth H. Jenkins, senior research fellow, Silk Road Studies Program of the Institute for Security & Development Policy

Jenkins also rejects suggestions that Erdoğan orchestrated the coup himself to give him a reason to suppress opposition. “He hasn’t needed an excuse before,” Jenkins says. Jenkins also points to Erdoğan’s demeanor when he was interviewed early on July 16—Erdoğan appeared rattled and worried rather than calm and in control—and notes that Erdoğan waited several days before returning to the presidential palace in Ankara, likely out of concern for his safety.

Even if Erdoğan did not engineer the coup himself, he has clearly seized the opportunity to cement his power. For the academic science community, in addition to the arrests, detainments, and suspensions, the purge has meant the closure of 15 universities suspected of being pro-Gülen. Affected students will be placed at other universities in the same cities, the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK) announced Aug. 11.

More than 1,500 university deans were forced to resign, “as a precautionary measure to facilitate and precipitate the implementation of the necessary steps to reestablish the autonomy of our universities,” YÖK said. By C&EN press time, YÖK had not responded to inquiries about whether and how many deans have been reinstated to their positions. YÖK also ordered all university faculty members to return to Turkey on July 19, although the travel ban ended a few days later.

Additionally, 139 employees were removed and an additional 28 resigned from their positions at the Scientific & Technological Research Council of Turkey, which advises the government on science and research issues and distributes grant money, Nature reported on Aug. 10.

When C&EN contacted chemists in Turkey, few responded.

Of those who did, most expressed support for Erdoğan. “I would like clearly to state that Turkey is a democratic country and now fighting against antidemocratic actions with the support of its people,” says Yusuf Yagci, a chemistry professor at Istanbul Technical University. Yagci was chair of the World Polymer Congress, which took place in Istanbul on July 17–21. Although conditions were “very difficult,” the meeting was successful, Yagci says.

Others, such as Ahmet, were worried and fearful. Two U.S. chemistry professors also expressed concern to C&EN about former group members now in Turkey. One U.S. professor heard from a former group member who is now a professor in Turkey. “He is currently suspended from his job and awaiting the outcome of an investigation,” and he would like to leave Turkey and return to the U.S., even if it means taking a step back to a postdoc position, the U.S. professor says.

The other U.S. professor received only terse responses when he tried to check in with former group members. He hasn’t wanted to push them, though, lest he put them in a “precarious situation,” he says.

The ACS Office of International Activities issued a human rights alert on Aug. 3 asking for chemists, chemical engineers, or allied professionals affected by the political situation in Turkey to contact the office. As of C&EN press time, the office had acknowledged that affected scientists did contact the office but had not revealed how many and what assistance they were seeking.

Scholars at Risk, an organization that works to protect threatened scholars and promote academic freedom worldwide, had received 101 requests for assistance by Aug. 18, mostly from people in humanities fields, says Clare Robinson, the organization’s director of protection services. “We’ve received requests for help with advocacy to support scholars and scientists who have been interrogated, detained, allegedly tortured or mistreated, dismissed, or otherwise pressured in the past few weeks,” Robinson says. More generally, “scholars and scientists from Turkey are essentially looking for ways to continue their scholarship in safety,” whether within Turkey or by seeking temporary positions abroad, she says.

How far the upheaval will extend into industry remains to be seen. Erdoğan “started with the core of the state and is now moving into the private sector, but we don’t know how far this is going to go,” Jenkins says. One consequence of the situation is that it will likely reduce foreign investment. “It was quite bad before the attempted coup because there was a lot of political instability,” Jenkins says. Now, “I think everyone will be putting plans on hold, even though Turkey is quite attractive because it’s a large market.”

That view is echoed by a chemist who landed in Turkey several months ago, hoping to start a company. Turkey is an appealing location for a start-up, he says, because costs are relatively low and its location promotes access to both European and Middle Eastern markets. But the political climate now has him considering where else to go.

He’s not alone. For people such as chemists who have technical training, “most of them have skills that they can try to sell elsewhere,” Jenkins says. “Maybe it’s in a different language, but chemistry is chemistry.”

The overall situation is very difficult for Erdoğan’s opponents inside Turkey, whether they support Gülen or not, Jenkins says. As soon as anyone raises questions about the political purging, they’re accused of trying to justify the coup attempt. “The coup attempt was outrageous and has to be condemned 100%,” he says. “But it has to be distinguished from the clampdown and appalling treatment of people since.” 


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