Turkey’s science agency says evolution is ‘too controversial’, rejects science school

A guest blog post by Evin Barış Altıntaş

The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) has declined to fund a summer training program on evolution for post-graduate students saying that evolution is a “subject that is still being debated around the world” in a written response.

TÜBİTAK recently turned down a financial support requested for a planned Mathematical Evolution Postgraduate Summer School by ten scientists from Turkish, European and US universities, citing the reason that evolution is “too controversial”, and also that it is not an “innovative” subject, which is one of the TÜBİTAK criteria for funding educational projects.

The organizers applied for funds on 30 May. The letter they received in response said: “The chosen topic of evolution is a subject that is being debated in the world just as it is in our country and it is a subject that is taught as a subject in secondary school and higher levels, and it lacks innovation. The educational and/or political, cultural and social dimensions of the event seem to be more emphasized in the planned event than scientific content.”

The report also said that the organizers were not adequately representative of Turkey.

The ten scientists behind the project, in a response to TÜBİTAK sent on 28 June, described the response as “not serious and being far from scientific impartiality”. The scientists called on TÜBİTAK to sack experts from the agency who lack “scientific competence” and called for a re-evaluation of their request to fund the summer school.

“As any researcher who follows the international science literature, evolution is not a subject that is being ‘debated’ around the world, but a lively and effective research field in almost all of the applied fundamental sciences,” the scientists said in their written response.

They also said that referring to evolution only as a secondary and high school subject can only be done by someone who does not follow contemporary biological research.

“Evolution is the binding material of all biological sciences and it is the driving force behind the production of new knowledge,” the scientists’ statement said.

It added that the organizers have expertise in both theoretical and experimental areas of evolutionary biology at an international level and are active researchers in the field, which, it said, contradicted TÜBİTAK’s rationale for rejection of funding.

The statement added the organizers are all experts in evolutionary biology and biological data models from some of the world’s top universities.

The scientists also said that as the title “summer school” suggested, the planned activities of the school are not for scientific research but for training purposes.

“As such, it is completely in line with the purpose of ‘conveying [to others] contemporary developments in science and technology or teaching of techniques that need to be used extensively’ as described in [TÜBİTAK’s] 2217 Support Program document,” they said.

TÜBİTAK on 1 July responded to the academics, asserting that its evaluation was made “objectively”. The body said the academics are free to challenge its decision at a court.

The organizers of the school are Ayşegül Birand (Middle East Technical University), Erol Akçay (Princeton University), Mehmet Somel (University of California, Berkeley), Ayşe Erzan (İstanbul Technical University), Raşit Bilgin (Boğaziçi University), İsmail K. Sağlam, (Hacettepe University), Nüzhet Dalfes (İstanbul Technical University), Arpat Özgül (University of Zurich), Murat Tuğrul (doctoral student at IST – Austria) and Betül Kaçar from Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been criticized by scientists for acting politically when making appointments to TÜBİTAK posts. Over the past few years, TÜBİTAK has assumed an increasingly anti-evolutionary stance, ceasing the publication of articles on evolutionary findings in its monthly journal and also publication of Turkish translations of popular science books that even make mention of human ancestors, including Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”.

Mićo Tatalović

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