Climate change: The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society of Turkey

Researchers in and from Turkey are working together to organise a vibrant scientific community and reduce brain drain.
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The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society of Turkey officially formed in 2015, though its origins lie in an earlier series of local meetings. Anyone with a connection to scientific research in ecology or evolutionary biology in Turkey (either because they work there or have Turkish citizenship) can join, and the society currently has over 200 members. The society’s President Mehmet Somel explains how they aim to combat the brain drain and support Turkey’s research community.

What was the motivation behind forming the society?

My real motivation when we started was to address the pattern of global inequality in science. Most scientific knowledge is produced by only a handful of rich countries and this is largely thanks to their ability to attract the best talents from poorer countries. Meanwhile, problems ranging from a lack of resources to political instability discourage young researchers from taking jobs in less developed countries. But we need good scientists across the world, both to increase global productivity, and to address local problems. It’s not true that science lacks borders – the number of scientists working in a country does influence that country’s social development. So we hoped to create a collaborative, stimulating environment in Turkey for young researchers that would help reverse brain drain.

Why is it important to organise meetings between researchers from different fields in Turkey?

Science is a highly collective activity and the more we interact, the higher our productivity. Interactions between evolutionary biologists and ecologists are particularly attractive, as you see your old problems from a different angle. Graduate students in Turkey, as in most lower income countries, have difficulty obtaining travel funds. By organising meetings inside Turkey, we can help them learn about and collaborate on some high quality science. This is not the best solution but it’s better than nothing.

In addition to connecting people from different fields, we’re also trying to connect more with the Greek scientific community. Hopefully we’ll be organising summer schools together starting this year.

What are the main challenges that researchers face in Turkey?

Financial or political instability is in general higher in Turkey than in most rich countries, which of course makes scientific research more difficult, and the sackings and arrests of academics last year has caused extra anxiety within the scientific community. Still, neither political nor financial problems are particular to Turkey, especially among less affluent countries.

The most significant challenge to conducting research in Turkey is the lack of experienced and motivated scientists in the immediate vicinity. Not because we can’t train good researchers, but because we lose them constantly. In the majority of cases people leave or remain abroad because of pessimism, rather than direct political pressure or academic obstacles. This creates a vicious circle: if good researchers leave, the climate worsens, leading more to leave.

How do you support young researchers?

One main activity is to organise summer schools and winter schools, mostly focused on teaching computational tools for evolutionary and ecological research. Summer schools are held in English and are also open to foreign faculty and students, while we prefer to do winter schools in Turkish for students who are less fluent in English. All the activities we organise are free of charge to student members, and the student annual membership fee is only 11 euros. We aim to cover accommodation and travel, whenever possible. I should acknowledge that the European Society for Evolutionary Biology generously funded our summer school in 2016.

We also recently started a thesis and student article awards program, and we’re planning to start a mentorship program within the society to match graduate students with experienced researchers.

What is your biggest achievement so far?

The consistency of our activities. We have organised four symposia, seven summer and winter schools for graduate students, and one workshop for teachers.

What has been your biggest frustration?

Our conservative government’s anti-evolution pursuits are a regular source of annoyance, but recently my worst surprise came from the Council of the Society of Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) in 2016. I’d helped Rasmus Nielsen of UC Berkeley in preparing a small grant proposal to promote the teaching of evolution in the Middle East and North Africa. Rasmus’ idea was to organise a series of meetings for researchers and college tutors who train teacher candidates. These would start in Turkey and travel to different countries in the region, from Iran to Morocco, every year. I was sure the grant would be supported. Instead, here was the SMBE Council’s response: “The council appreciates the importance of bringing modern molecular evolutionary research and education to this part of the world, but has widespread concerns about the political stability and safety in the region. For this reason, your proposal was not approved.” Our whole community was seriously frustrated to see this attitude!

How can early-career researchers support the aims of the society?

Firstly, by joining the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Symposium, Turkey (EEBST) meetings held every summer and interacting with grad students there (the next one will be in the Mediterranean town of Izmir on July 18-20, 2018; for more information see http://eebst.org). They can also help to organise summer and winter schools, and volunteer to be mentors to local students and help with paper and grant writing. And finally, they can set up their research groups here in Turkey and the region.

Learn more about the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Society of Turkey: https://ekoevo.org/society-for-ecology-and-evolutionary-biology-turkey/