11 February 2011 | EN | ES
Protesters in Tahrir Square, Egypt
Flickr/ Floris Van Cauwelaert
The discontent behind recent protests in Egypt carries lessons for how both science and journalism are handled across the Arab world.
For most Egyptians protesting vociferously — and ultimately successfully — in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere over the past two weeks, the state of the nation's science will have been far from the top of their complaints.
Nevertheless, researchers are reported to have been prominent among the protesters. This shows that their professional frustrations with the policies of their government towards science and technology (S&T) resonate with the passionate concerns of many other Egyptians about how their country is being run.
Frustrations among scientists in Egypt have been bubbling below the surface for many years. Some have focused on the lack of adequate support for high-class research in the country, where low academic salaries have forced many scientists to either dilute their energies by taking second jobs, or to join the brain drain.
Other pressures have broader implications. The failure to establish strong links between university research and private industry, for example, has created a culture where technological innovation is unable to flourish. This is widely regarded as one reason for the shortage of jobs for young people — including qualified graduates.
Anger at the high level of youth unemployment has certainly fuelled the current wave of protests. And behind all this has been continuing dismay at the crippling effect of a powerful — and at times corrupt — government bureaucracy that deflects time, energy and resources away from productive activities.
Not just Egypt
Last year, the UN Education and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) released a report, 'UNESCO Science Yearbook 2010', which pointed out that such problems are not unique to Egypt, but are shared by many countries in the Arab world.
The report lists a number of recent initiatives in the region aiming to boost high-quality research and promote public–private partnerships for research and development, from the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, to the creation of S&T parks in many states.
But it also points out that "in Arab countries, the indifference shown by decision-makers to S&T is a major contributor to the current vegetative state of S&T". And it criticises the role of governments in exerting "undue influence over universities, mainly out of political considerations".
It is difficult to disagree with the report's conclusion that these and other deep-rooted issues need to be tackled urgently if Arab countries are to create vibrant knowledge-based economies that meet the needs of their citizens.
Opportunities for change
The strength of the demonstrations over the past two weeks has dramatically illustrated how deeply many Egyptians desire to see their government tackle the obstacles that stand in the way of accelerating the country's social and economic progress and achieving this goal.
How these broader issues will be resolved — hopefully peacefully — now the President Mubarak has left the scene remains to be seen. But whatever the outcome, there will be several opportunities in the months ahead to reflect on ways of implementing the policy changes urgently required for science to contribute to progress more effectively.
For example, an ambitious Arab Science and Technology Plan of Action (ASTPA) drawn up by experts from across the region will be submitted for adoption at a summit meeting of Arab states scheduled for next month in Baghdad, Iraq.
The plan identifies a number of priority areas for research. It is also likely to propose an "online Arab S&T observatory" to monitor its implementation in Arab states, highlighting areas where countries may or may not be living up to their commitments.
It is vital that monitoring is not restricted to direct factors, such as the level of support for university research, but includes the broader political environment that allows science to flourish — and the obstacles that prevent it from doing so (as has been the case in Egypt).
The current events in Cairo underline the fact that the contribution of science to development can only be filled if the political environment is sufficiently supportive. Science cannot flourish, nor can its benefits be widely shared, in any overly-restrictive, bureaucratic state.
Allowing journalistic freedom
Three months from now, Egypt is due to host a separate but no less relevant event, the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists, which, at the time of publishing this editorial, is still planned to take place in Cairo.
This meeting will highlight the vital function that journalists play in communicating to both policymakers and the public the message that S&T have an important role to play in promoting development.
Inevitably, the conference will also be an opportunity to reflect on the need to respect the freedom of journalists to report on responses to this message, and on cases where their efforts to communicate openly have been restricted. The harassment of journalists — both national and foreign — is amongst one of the ugliest aspects of the recent events.
Scientists and journalists have a common interest in fighting to improve the conditions, both material and political, under which they operate. They must do so not only in their own interests, but also in those of the society that benefits from their work. In Tahrir Square they have been sharing their concerns, often with bloody consequences. Hopefully it will not have been in vain.
Nagib Nassar,Universidade Brasilia,Brasil ( Brazil )
15 February 2011
Thanks Dr Dickson for emphasising the role of democracy for flourishing science, and how its absense in Egypt in the last 30 years reflected negatively in country development, moreover contributed in breaking down the regime itself. It imposed on scientists and their institutions concepts of knowledge production that were superficial, false and in many times harmful. This harm ranged from financial shortage of research funding to scientific production itself which was shaped to serve the dictator and his regime. Free thoughts, freedom of thinking contradicted and chocked policymakers and science policies of the regime. Limitations where imposed on opinion expression, press and communications.
The scientific institutions were led by persons having no any scientific merit, the only qualification and only criterion for selecting them is their obedience, loyalty and faithfulness for the dictator, having no any scientific vision or development plan for the long run. They were specialized in satisfying the dictator in every field: begining by the ministry of agriculture, science... up to Alexandria biblioteque... and in falsifying statistics that no anybody can contest about increasing areas of cultivation where it was diminishing!! Many scientists could not stand living under a regime prohibiting liberty of thinking leaving them unable to decide their destination or even live in peace. Scientists left their country looking for a peaceful place and, dignity where they can decide their future.
The three Egyptian Nobel prize winners are witnesses and testimonies. All of them lived outside Egypt or produced their prized work in a pre-Mubarak regime. Nagib Mahfouz produced his trilogy and principal remarkable achievements during the democratic period where Egypt lived. El baradei and Zoel were prized for their achievements realized outside Egypt. Quality of scientific output in Egypt in the last 30 years reached the bottom, not compatible at all with its scientific history in democratic age in the years before. This can be confirmed by citation and databases analysis. The evolution of scientific production itself during the suppressive regime is almost null.
Ehab Zayed ( Agriculture Research Center | Egypt )
15 February 2011
The article is very realistic but denied some of the efforts that existed at that time and also the reasons for weakness. Universities differ from the weakness of research centers so it's what he will change for the better because there is a psychological comfort of Egyptian researchers and the subject of science will change in Egypt's ranking complementary to the level of basic running opportunities, work and provide dynamic resources for the industry to shine. As well as for agriculture that has been identified to grow in the decades above and remember the old group Giralve talked about my teacher who is Najib Tsar. Egyptians, I am also proud of you in order for your Egyptian nationality oversees.
I would like to add that the strength of scientific research in the Arab world makes the Western world in constant evolution and demonstrates the history of the Arab nation and minds turn to something productive. Cooperation is better than the import of scientific.
Ehab Zayed ( Agriculture Research Center | Egypt )
16 February 2011
Can you see the the number of researchers in the USA, USSR, and Arab nations who were leading the different countries to grade up in different sciences.
Maha ( Horticultural research center | Egypt )
24 February 2011
I agree with Dr. Nagib The Egyptian famous scholar from many aspects but I wanna add that if we want to see our country get rise soon in scientific research area we should cleansing our institutions from residual former regime followers those who killed any hope to see scientific renaissance during all the last 30 years, and replace them with who can lead us from trusted competencies in all scientific fields with clear vision for the future of science in Egypt.
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