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Turkey's Frantic, Failing Quest To Be A Technology Leader

Taking a closer look in Istanbul.
Taking a closer look in Istanbul.
Güven Sak


ISTANBUL — Anyone who has ever visited a toy store with a child who doesn't really know what he wants can understand Turkey"s technological predicament. There is the mad run from shelf to shelf, listening to the child explain why he desperately needs toy after toy. And then, in the end, there is the parental lecture about a limited budget and the need to focus on something he really, truly wants.

Turkey's quest for national technology is very much like that. The country wants to produce a "national airplane." Turkey thinks it desperately needs a "national car." Turkey believes it must also develop a "national vaccine." The country wants all that and more — and right now.

There is a naive belief that these ambitions can all be achieved with a room and a desk. We have many places in our foremost universities with names such as "vaccine production center."

So what's driving all this, and why is it so wrong?

China spent almost $300 billion for research and development in 2014 compared to the $8 billion Turkey invested as it talked a lot about "producing national technology." First of all, if a country wants to build any new technology from scratch, it can't be done with spare change like that. When you look at the R&D budgets of the world's top 20 private companies — mind you, not countries — Turkey ranks equal to Google, which is ninth.

Secondly, consider the top three companies when it comes to this expenditure: Volkswagen (automotive), Samsung (consumer electronics) and Intel (information and communication technology). These three have a combined $40 billion R&D budget. Each company is a leader in its field, focusing on one specific area with more money than Turkey's entire R&D budget. And with that kind of money, nobody is trying to produce cars and medicine at the same time.

So what's the solution? First, Turkey must accept that there is no such thing as a "national technology" in our day and age. What Turkey really seeks is technology transfer. Sadly, our engineers have always looked at other designs without thinking about why things were created the way they were, and they've adopted production procedures again developed by others. It's time to change that.

Look at the Chinese experience: It was foreign investment and technology transfer that catapulted high technology exports to represent 25% of its total exports in 2012, up from just 5% in 1992. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Any technology that is spread over the country's economy is national. Trying to create anything else is just like insisting on buying a new toy.

A country like Turkey can't do everything at once with its limited economic means, its R&D budget and number of engineers. Technology that is flexible enough to expand to other sectors must be preferred. The best example of what not to do is Turkey's past experience with state-foundation companies within the defense industry, such as ASELSAN. Unproductive technology transfer is a waste of resources.

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