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  • Egypt: from revolutionary spirit to scientific progress

One year after Egypt's revolution, enthusiasm and prospects for science are high — but still need translation into a fully functioning system.

It is difficult to believe, given the optimism and vitality of current debates about science in Egypt, that less than two years ago a UNESCO report described science in the Arab world as being in a "vegetative state". [1]

This week Egypt celebrates the first anniversary of the momentous events in Tahrir Square, and elsewhere, that brought down the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak. These events showed both the promises and the challenges in achieving economic prosperity and social development.

The promises lie in the fervour for democratic control that continues to sweep the country, combined with growing public enthusiasm for science. They point to a widely-held desire to modernise Egypt's social and economic institutions in ways that directly address the needs of its people.

But turning fervour into an achievable political programme — one that ensures the achievements of last year's revolution are permanent — remains a major challenge. This is as true for the institutional reforms needed to genuinely transform the country's science infrastructure, as it is of the broader changes demanded of the newly-elected Egyptian Parliament.

Popular and government support

Certainly there is no lack of public support for reform, on either front. Indeed, a marked increase in public enthusiasm for science over the past year has been a significant, if little remarked, element of the country's cultural transformation.

Publicity for the reasons behind government prioritisation of science, as well as the launch of huge science-related projects such as the Zewail City of Science and Technology, has launched an unprecedented public discussion on the need to develop science and technology in Egypt. Lively debates on this topic have taken place on Facebook.

Attendance at public events, such as lectures run by organisations such as the Science Age Society [2], has been high. And part of the discussion has been around how individuals can support scientific development, for example by becoming scientists and engineers. Frustration at a lack of employment opportunities for even qualified graduates was a major factor behind the revolution itself.

The media reflects this increased recognition for scientific research. Many newspapers, both new and old, now devote a special section to science — something that few would have considered before the revolution.

Government support for scientific research and the technological innovation sector has been impressive over the past year. An increase of about 35 per cent for the research budget has already been approved. And promises of further investment look set to end the chronic underfunding of science in Egypt.

Scientists and academics are now enjoying higher salaries and much more freedom than they had previously. They are more optimistic about the prospects of developing a system of scientific research that will meet both their, and the country's, needs.

Meritocracy and strategy

A separate question is how far bringing down a corrupt, authoritarian regime has provided the conditions for a new meritocracy.

Progress in scientific and socioeconomic development will depend on individuals being recognised for their talents and contribution, rather than their political or family connections. As Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, one of the most articulate commentators on the challenges facing Arab science, notes in an interview with SciDev.Net, meritocracy is essential since it allows good ideas to prevail regardless of their origin.

Achieving such a transformation in the country's scientific culture is one of the major challenges that lie ahead.

A research strategy must be agreed to ensure the promised budget increases are used appropriately. One year after the revolution, and despite all the upbeat talk, such a strategy has yet to be announced.

And new ways of supporting scientific research, such as by creating a Supreme Council of Research Centres, are still in the early stages, and will need a lot of time, effort and commitment.

No room for complacency

Until a fully functioning scientific system emerges, Egypt's best and brightest minds will continue to be attracted by higher rewards and better working conditions elsewhere, not only in Western countries such as the United States and Europe, but also elsewhere in the Arab world.

Despite the improved climate for research, 400 researchers still left Egypt's National Research Centre in 2011 to work in countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia — talent that Egypt can ill afford to lose.  

And innovation in the private sector remains low, reflecting continued uncertainty over where the country's economy is heading. There is, therefore, no cause for complacency.

One year after the revolution, the optimistic and supportive spirit that surrounds science in Egypt still needs to be translated into the concrete activities required for real development. A law on science and technology, due to be considered by the Egyptian Parliament later this year, is one tangible action that could set the country on the right path.

It would be a tragedy if this opportunity is missed, and the country's science reverts to previous habits of relative inertia and low productivity.

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net

Bothina Osama
Regional Coordinator, Middle East and North Africa, SciDev.Net

References