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February 18, 2013, Monday

Prime Minister Erdoğan and Turkish think tanks

Recent statements made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on journalist Fatih Altaylı's television program “Teke Tek” regarding Turkish think tanks were important. It was the first time that a prime minister of the Turkish Republic had publicly acknowledged the importance of these think tanks. Erdoğan's words did much to highlight how much importance is now attached to the shaping of Turkey's domestic and foreign policies by them. The prime minister also noted that he believed former government deputies should be very involved in the formation of think tanks, and that these think tanks should then be used to promote Turkey's policies to the rest of the world. Erdoğan also pointed to the US, noting that, by comparison, Turkey is late in the creation of effective think tanks.

Industry in Turkey is in the midst of a great transformation, with a transition from labor-intensive sectors to technology-heavy sectors. And in this new world -- where raw information has increased, as have mobile lives and the importance of time -- obtaining correct information and the need for analysis have also increased. And thus, information processing has gained much importance. What's more, think tanks are able to make space for themselves on international platforms where the state is unable to do so.

And so, for all these reasons, it is notable that the prime minister has declared that the formation and support of think tanks are vital. At the same time, though, the existing political structure is far from supporting the development of said think tanks. Likewise, the university system in Turkey is not doing enough to encourage students to study and become experts on matters that concern Turkey's domestic and foreign policy arenas. While neither the government nor the public sector is making new legal regulations for think tanks, the Turkish private sector is far from grasping their significance. In fact, the private sector really only addresses foreign think tanks.

Turkish think tanks face problems concerning long-term financial support, the procurement of long-term staffing, the training of regional experts and obtaining current information. As it stands right now, think tanks are not perceived as a career move by most people; professions such as “strategist,” “analyst,” “political analyst,” “domestic and foreign policy expert,” “think tank expert” and so on are not really defined or accepted as full careers. In fact, these are titles generally given to retired politicians and top-level bureaucrats, or to doctorate-level students working full time, or perhaps academics who do these jobs half-time. And so, the staff turnover rate at think tanks is very high. Which leads the way to a weak institutional memory at think tanks in Turkey, and a general lack of central institutionalization.

The most important challenge to Turkish think tanks is for them to be able to create a work environment that will draw well-educated experts between the ages of 25 and 55 to work full time. In order for think tanks to enjoy a healthy future, it is vital that they offer strategists long-term contracts, that they offer up long-term job security, that think tank jobs are perceived as real careers and that there are strong ties and transitions created between them and the bureaucratic, political and business worlds. Despite the fact that working at a think tank is, as with journalism and any job in the defense forces, a round-the-clock profession, strategists do not receive the benefits that the aforementioned professions do. One solution would be to apply press laws to those working in think tanks.

In the West (particularly in the US), there is a culture of turning over projects to think tanks from both the private and public sectors. In Turkey, this culture does not exist. It should also be noted that in Turkey, where plagiarism and idea-theft are commonplace and accepted as normal, there is quite a way to go before think tanks can survive healthily and long term.

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