Interview: Y ücel Altunbaşak

How can Turkey leverage research and development (R&D) to create a more innovative economy?

Y UCEL ALTUNBAŞAK: Turkey has made great progress in the R&D field. In the last decade Turkey had the second-highest rate of increase in R&D spending globally, after China. Since 2002, the number of full-time equivalent researchers has jumped three-fold, business enterprise R&D has increased five-fold and domestic patents have risen five-and-a-half-fold. Yet, we understand that more progress is needed to avoid economic stagnation in the middle-income trap. This is why the government sees the solution in three words: R&D, innovation and entrepreneurship. The Supreme Council for Science and Technology (SCST), which is chaired by the prime minister, aims to boost R&D expenditure to 3% of GDP by 2023, two-thirds of which will have to come from the private sector. In addition, policymakers have identified priority sectors for R&D focus, including automotive, machinery and manufacturing technologies, energy, information and communications technology, water, food, defence, health and aerospace. TÜBİTAK has begun offering R&D grants for businesses and academicians in prioritised areas. The SCST has also issued decrees calling for improved public procurement mechanisms, licensing to foster innovation and localisation, more digital content in education and greater use of technology in government service delivery.

What can be done to help academic researchers in Turkey increase their scientific output?

ALTUNBAŞAK: TÜBİTAK offers research grants to help local academicians publish in scientific journals, with extra incentives offered for publishing in the most competitive journals. We also encourage higher education institutions to produce commercial outputs, such as patents, spin-off firms and joint projects with industry. For example, TÜBİTAK has created The Entrepreneurial and Innovative University Index to encourage higher education institutions to assume a third role beyond training and supplying human resources – a role that supports the development of new processes and products, and helps drive sustainable growth.

In addition, we connect researchers to industry professionals through technology-transfer offices (TTOs) and incubators that are combined with mentorship services. Industry mentors are indeed crucial for ensuring that a TTO is not only an address, but also a dynamic centre where coaches can provide practical guidance based on real-world business experience.

To what extent are efforts being made to strengthen research collaboration between Turkish and foreign scientists, and why is this important?

ALTUNBAŞAK: Turkey supports collaboration by participating in international programmes like EUREKA and EMBO, and through its involvement in international organisations, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. TÜBİTAK also offers financial support to foreign researchers eager to visit Turkey for scientific and technological events. These efforts are important because research collaboration can connect Turkey to global knowledge pipelines, and link our scientists to centres of R&D excellence overseas. Enhancing international cooperation in science, technology and research is one of the main strategic aims of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy 2011-16. We aim to raise the number of full-time equivalent researchers to 300,000 by 2023.

How can ongoing reforms help Turkey produce a critical mass of knowledge-society workers?

ALTUNBAŞAK: Following the 24th meeting of the SCST, the nation began to address this problem more aggressively. Policymakers revised aspects of the national curriculum to promote skills and capabilities needed in everyday life. We are now integrating interactive course material into classrooms. This approach is exemplified by the Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology, which will bring smart boards and tablets to 42,000 schools and 570,000 classrooms nationwide.