Dark clouds over Turkish and UK Academia

Visitors to Istanbul often first go to see the eighth wonder of the world, Hagia Sophia. This is also what my research group did – actually several times – in connection with joint research meetings with our Turkish partners. Hagia Sophia has a history of being a Byzantine church for over 900 years, then it was used as an Ottoman mosque for over 480 years, and in 1935 it was converted to a secular museum. For over 10 years, we have worked together with our Turkish partners to find secular solutions for the production of renewable energy carriers. During these years, we have learned to appreciate the excellent research quality and true commitment of our Turkish friends. The research exchanges can be counted in years.

The news from Turkey this summer after the failed coup trial have been very confusing and discouraging: the attacks on academic freedom and putting the education sector under a tight control. This has been demonstrated by sacking large numbers of Turkish university staff, academics from abroad have been told to return home, and bans on international travel have been set. It is very important that the European University Association, followed promptly by Universities Finland UNIFI among other organisations, have called on European universities and scholars to speak against these crude developments.

The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union has been another headline in this summer’s world news. Brexit is going to have widespread consequences – and not least for European science. Seven UK academies in their open letter to the new UK administration expressed their concern that Brexit is putting UK science at a serious risk. This warning is warranted already from the funding perspective alone. A Royal Society publication from 2015 reports that the UK contributed to the EU 7th Framework Programme by 5.4 billion euros, whilst it received 8.8 billion euros. As first aid to UK scientists, the UK government announced this weekend that Horizon research funding granted before leaving the EU will be guaranteed.

UK universities are dominating the top of the best universities in Europe as measured by various ranking systems. Times Higher Education, for example, lists the best 200 European universities, and UK universities take four out of five top positions and they also represent one quarter of the overall list. These figures alone show that the contribution of UK universities to European science and innovation must be very significant. Therefore, the risk caused by Brexit is not limited to UK science but that of the European Union – and we Finns are not outside the risk zone. Over the years, Finnish university scientists have established mutually fruitful co-operation with UK universities – typically with the help of EU funded projects.

In addition to scientific contributions, the UK’s involvement in the development of the EU’s science policy has been instrumental. At present, EU funding decisions are based on scientific criteria. This policy has been strongly influenced by the UK together with several other countries including Finland. How will this be after Brexit? Possible science policy changes after the UK’s withdrawal could also be detrimental to our opportunities and successes in sustaining future funding.

Going back to Istanbul. We have team photos from Hagia Sophia by the wishing column with a bronze-covered hole in the wall. The advice given by our friends was to put a thumb in the hole, rotate the thumb a complete 360-degree tour inside the hole and at the same time, make a wish. According to the legend, there is a tendency for the wish to come true. Applying this method is not going to be enough for clearing the present challenges around academic life in Turkey. More secular actions are needed. In addition to political statements and sympathies, practical solutions by universities and especially at research team level are needed. First, securing our Turkish visitors the continuums of conducting research in our laboratories and groups.  It is important to find ways of pursuing active research relations over the difficult times.

As for cooperation with UK partners, our researchers should take every effort to maintain and further strengthen research ties. And for politicians, actions towards sustaining the UK’s contributions to the EU’s competitiveness through science and innovation just makes sense.

Jaakko_Puhakka_TTY_100x130_3Jaakko Puhakka
Academic rector