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[CAIRO] Egypt's government has announced an ambitious plan for a tenfold increase in spending on scientific research within the next three years, at an event where the prime minister declared science as a top priority.

It plans to raise the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on scientific research from 0.23 per cent to two per cent. But critics say this is too much, too fast.

The increase was announced last week (20 June) by Amr Ezzat Salama, Egypt's minister of higher education, science and technology, at the launch of the second phase of the country's Research Development and Innovation (RDI) Programme, funded by the European Commission (EC).

At the same event, Egypt's prime minister, Essam Abdel-Aziz Sharaf, said: "Institutions of higher education and scientific research are facing difficult challenges due to the current political circumstances, and developing a system of scientific research should be a top priority."

Sharaf — the country's interim prime minister until planned elections in September — added that scientific research is a "vital sector" for economic and social development.

Earlier this month (1 June), Egypt's cabinet approved a budget for the 2011–12 financial year that increases spending from US$66.5 million to US$90.5 million.

But Mamdouh Al-Wali, business reporter for the Al-Ahram newspaper, said that increasing the budget of "any item other than commodities and wages" in such a short time would prove difficult as the state budget has a projected shortfall of billions of dollars.

"The problem is not about increasing the proportion of expenditure on scientific research, but the volume of investment in real scientific research," he said, adding that much of the science budget goes towards staff salaries rather than research.

Hassan El-Banna Fath, an engineering professor at Alexandria University and project manager of an RDI-funded water desalination project, also questioned the feasibility of increasing the scientific research budget so quickly.

"It would be better if this increase happened over the next ten years," Fath said. "Increasing the budget by such a large amount could result in a reduction of the quality of research that is funded — and is therefore counterproductive to Egypt's research sector."

Fath encouraged the government not to rely on the state budget but to try and increase the allocation of spending on research through international partnerships such as the RDI programme.

The programme, backed by a US$28 million grant from the EC, aims to strengthen links between the research sector and industry, and enhance innovation and technology transfer. It also seeks to support the integration of Egypt into the European Research Area, a system of research programmes. The first phase of the programme used a grant of US$16 million over three years to fund 51 research projects.