Can Egypt join the knowledge economy?
The tasks facing Egypt as it strives to engage with both the opportunities and threats of globalisation — particularly by modernising its approach to science and technology — epitomise the challenge facing many Muslim countries.
Any visitor to Egypt cannot fail to be impressed by the speed and efficiency with which tickets are issued for the train between Cairo and Alexandria. A modern, computerised booking system allows the instant allocation of a selected seat on a preferred train, a service that remains unavailable in many places in Europe.
The railway infrastructure is a different matter. Accommodation is in crowded carriages that have seen better days. Trains frequently run late. And on arrival in Alexandria the station seems to have changed little — at least to judge by external appearances — since it was built by British engineers in the mid-19th century.
The same dichotomy is even more striking in Alexandria itself. The new Library of Alexandria has rapidly become the jewel in the crown of Egypt's efforts to define a high profile role for itself in the cultural landscape of the international knowledge economy. The library is housed in an awe-inspiring building, which combines architectural flair with the best of modern construction technology and a showcase demonstration of electronic access to the world's literature.
Yet the library's efforts to link modern science to Egypt's (and the world's) cultural heritage — as well as its commitment to other projects intended to promote science and technology within Egypt itself — make it an isolated beacon in an otherwise relatively bleak landscape. Much thinking about modern technology remains conceptually as it did in the 19th century. Why build a domestic research base when most of what is needed (whether a railway station or a modern telephone system) can be bought off-the-shelf from another country?
The problem, of course, is that such technological dependency comes at a price. Egypt's attempts to 'modernise' almost two centuries ago led it into massive debts, and eventually to its absorption for 70 years into the British Empire. A similar failure today to acknowledge the essential need for national capacity in science and technology, and to blend it effectively with indigenous needs and values, could have no less damaging consequences.
There have been several recent signs that the message is beginning to get through to the top level of Egypt's decision makers. One of the first was last year's appointment by president Mubarak of a computer specialist, Ahmed Nazif, to the post of prime minister last year.
Nazif is a software engineer who holds a doctorate in computer engineering from McGill University in Canada. In a previous government post, he had overseen the introduction of a national computerised identity card system. His promotion to the top post was heralded at the time by the newspaper Al-Ahram as bringing both "new blood" and "scientific thinking" to Mubarak's administration (see Software expert to head Egyptian government).
One of the first fruits of Nazif's approach became evident last week when Egypt unveiled a 12-year strategy aimed at developing an integrated system of scientific and technological research. The ambitious strategy will involve all relevant government departments.
Specific goals are to increase the number of trained scientists and technologists in the country — with a particular emphasis on raising the involvement of women — and to give science and technology an enhanced role in the country's development efforts (see Egypt gets serious about science with 12-year strategy).
Such ambitions can only be applauded. Particularly since the measures being considered do not focus just on pumping more money into the research system (which would have been the traditional approach). Rather, they appear to draw heavily on current thinking about the need to support systems of innovation across the board, including for example the need to create technology transfer centres linked to universities and research laboratories.
Increased support for scientific and technological research is an essential contribution to such efforts. But it is far from being the only one. From that point of view, it is reassuring to see that the government's plans include measures such as a growth in postgraduate and other training programmes in specialised areas, and even running programmes and workshops to train science policy advisors.
Few of those in Egypt, however, underestimate the task facing the government as it seeks to build the scientific and technological capacity needed both to participate in the global knowledge economy and to develop products and services needed by its people, at prices they can afford. The latter is a particular priority given the growing economic difficulties facing many Egyptians as a result of the government's initial moves towards liberalising the country's economy.
The problem is not a lack of brain-power. Egypt, with its long academic traditions has long been one of the intellectual powerhouses of the Muslim world. It was also one of the first, under its charismatic 19th century leader Mohamed Ali, to see the economic and social value of merging its traditional ways of thought with Western science and technology.
A supportive educational environment is one of the main reasons that scientists and other researchers trained in Egypt are now to be found in prestigious academic positions around the world, occupying many top chairs in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Sadly, however, this situation is not widely reflected within Egypt itself, in whose scientific community — according to many commentators — can be found both imaginative scientific flair and, more frequently, an indifference towards original research that verges at times on inertia.
In a bid to correct this situation, a new strategy for promoting higher education in Egypt has already been approved by the government, while the green light has also been given to the creation of three new universities with funding from Britain, Canada and Romania respectively.
Discussion is also taking place about the establishment of a Japanese-Egyptian university for science and technology that will promote technology transfer from Japan to the Arab world. And similar joint projects are under way with both Russia and China.
Egypt's own problem is partly a lack of funds. The fact that scientific capacity has not been a high political priority (in contrast, for example, to military spending) for several decades means that research budgets have remained tight. As a result, funds for modern equipment or journal subscriptions have been difficult to obtain. And the support that university academics receive from the government is often required almost entirely to meet teaching commitments (particularly since the rapid expansion of access to higher education in the past two decades).
But attitudes, too, are also important. It is worrying, for example, to hear of claims that a prominent Egyptian researcher whose work has been internationally recognised has failed to received tenure because of what are claimed to be personal tensions within his university department (see Egypt's academic quarrels are limiting research).
A related problem is that of bureaucracy. Indeed, one of Egypt's most prominent scientists — who has himself worked in the United States for many years — had claimed that it is excessive bureaucracy, as much as a lack of funding or political support, that is stifling the growth of science in many developing countries.
The warning came from Ahmed Zewail, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1999. Addressing members of the Third World Academy of Sciences in New Delhi, India, in 2003, Zewail said that developing countries had to put their own house in order if they wanted to reap the benefits of modern science and technology. "We cannot simply wait and blame the developed world for everything," he said (see Nobel laureate slams Third World bureaucracy).
The need for better communication
Egypt — like much of the Muslim world — faces enormous challenges not merely in reconciling modern scientific and technological thought with Islamic philosophy, but also in breathing a new spirit of openness and innovation into research-related activities. As has been said frequently in these pages, better communication of information about science and technology, at all levels of society, is an essential component of this task.
The need is apparent even from a superficial analysis of the content of Egyptian newspapers and magazines. With some notable exceptions — in particular the Al-Ahram newspaper — most simply ignore all but the most sensational science stories.
Where such stories are covered, they tend to be reports on achievements made in developed nations (often taken from wire service coverage). The relatively low level of either awareness or respect for science in Egypt is, sadly, reflected in an equally low coverage of domestic scientific achievements.
Much of this is familiar in most of the developing world. And Egypt is already taking steps to meet this need, for example through the creation in Cairo of a new science and technology 'city', intended to promote science communication and to increase public understanding and appreciation of the subject. .
But there is an additional twist facing Muslim countries keen to promote better science and technology communication. That is the difficulty of describing modern scientific achievements in the Arabic language. In some cases, the scientific or technical terms do not exist; in others, there may be a bewildering array of alternatives, making harmonisation of a 'popular' scientific and technological vocabulary a top priority.
But neither the extent of media coverage, nor the lack of an adequate terminology, are the most important issues at stake. The challenge for Egypt is a deeper one, namely how to integrate the open, innovative social culture that the effective development of science and technology requires into a worldview that continues to insist (correctly) that human values remain equally important (see Cultural chains: Islam, the West and global science).
If that can be achieved, then not only Egypt — nor indeed the rest of the Muslim world — will benefit. So will the rest of us, faced as we are with a process of all-encompassing globalisation that seems, all too frequently, to set one set of values against the other.