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Turkey Wants Its Scientists Back, But At Home They Face More Restrictions, Lower Pay


We turn now to Turkey, where the government wants its scientists back. Many have left to work in Europe or beyond. They're in search of a less-restrictive environment. But twice in recent months, Turkey's president has made public appeals for researchers to come home and put their skills to use in their native land. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: At a sidewalk cafe in Istanbul, a young researcher named Onur agrees to tell his story if his surname isn't used. He's worried about repercussions for himself or his family.

ONUR: I have just finished my Ph.D. I am a physicist - biophysicist. And now I'm trying to find a post or position abroad.

KENYON: It's not an easy decision, but Onur says working abroad is better for many science graduates. Money is part of it, he says, and not just salaries.

ONUR: In Turkey, the scientists are not free to spend their funding as they want. There are a lot of restrictions.

KENYON: Onur says researchers find significant chunks of their project funding drained off, frequently by the main state research council. And tight budgets mean young researchers rarely get to attend international conferences.

But beyond the money issues, Onur cites a long-standing culture of not respecting science. He says people seem to prefer what he calls mystics or pseudo-scientists.

ONUR: Actually, it's very hard for you to expect respect, funding or popularity as much as a mystic or pseudo-scientists have. And I think this has been the same for hundreds of years in this country.

KENYON: What's happening now is largely the result of a failed coup in 2016. A massive purge by the government has seen thousands of academics sacked. A Turkish-American NASA scientist is in a Turkish prison. Professionals in many sectors have left Turkey.

But it's the scientific outflow that has caught President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attention. At a technology conference this September, he singled out scientists, asking them to put their knowledge to work in their own country.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) We are starting the campaign for our scientific people to come back to their homeland. From here, I invite all the scientists from around the world to join us in science and technology development.

KENYON: The government is launching a new fellowship program designed to lure Turkish researchers back home. Features include monthly payments reaching upwards of $4,000, increased research budgets and other benefits.

Will it work? A Turkish astrophysicist, who also doesn't want his name used, is skeptical. He says better pay may attract more candidates, but that doesn't address what he calls the freedom of mind issue in modern-day Turkey. Fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing is what's driving him and people he knows to look for work elsewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED ASTROPHYSICIST: Before, so many academicians, also - they can say something against the government or not against the government. I mean, this was free, but it's not the case now. I mean, people are afraid - so many - of government.

KENYON: Onur, the biophysicist, says he's already planning to move his family to the U.K., even though his wife will have to give up her teaching job here and his 6-year-old daughter will be uprooted.

ONUR: I think it will be difficult for her. But I believe that in a couple of months, her English will be better than mine.

KENYON: He says some of his colleagues are taking jobs here at home, but not out of preference. They haven't found a position in Europe. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.