Egypt’s scientists savour post-revolution year

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[CAIRO] Scientists have been reflecting on the astonishing gains that the Egyptian revolution has delivered them, as the first anniversary of Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising approaches next week (25 January).

Over the past year, the science budget has increased by more than a third, salaries have risen and plans have been made for a science and technology city.

"Change has begun on both financial and administrative levels," Maged El-Sherbiny, president of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (the government body responsible for funding research in Egypt), told SciDev.Net.

All the research centres affiliated to different ministries will be gathered under the Supreme Council of Research Centers, and the scientific research budget, which jumped 35 per cent in 2011−12, is likely to increase in 2012−13, said El-Sherbiny, with a government target of one per cent of gross domestic product to be spent on science.

The sharp increase in funding stems from a widespread perception that investment in science is crucial for the future of Egypt.

Ashraf Shaalan, president of the National Research Centre (NRC) ―the largest research centre in Egypt ― said that this surge of national fervour for science, as well as increased funding, had motivated Egypt’s scientists.

For example, it has sparked interest in getting research published in international journals, he said. Output rose by a quarter to about 2,000 in 2011, he claimed.

The NRC won about US$13 million from the National Science and Technology Fund in 2011 to fund 80 research projects, he said. But, despite salary rises, the centre lost 400 researchers in the brain drain last year, especially to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The private sector has not fared so well post-revolution. The Nile University, the first private non-profit research university in Egypt, came under threat because of links to the former fallen regime. The university had moved into new accommodation just before the revolution and was then told by the new government to move out because they were on government land.

"Such stumbles are expected after revolutions," said Tarek Khalil, president of the Nile University.

"We started the year after the revolution not knowing if we would continue but, by the end of the year, the minister of scientific research had assured us that we will be continuing our efforts in our university."

Nile University will now be part of the new Zewail City of Science and Technology.

Government support for science investment and the launch of Zewail City― depicted as the ‘first fruit’ of the revolution and as a national project needing the support of all Egyptians ― has led to a surge in public interest in science, said Dr Hassan Abol-Enein, head of the Science Age Society, a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"We noticed a high attendance at our lectures which we weren’t used to before 25 January," he said.

After the revolution, NGOs became free to support scientific research in a way that had not been possible before. This was boosted by a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) issued by the Grand Mufti of Egypt last October saying that donations to scientific research were acceptable as a component of the obligation to give 2.5 per cent of income to charity.

Abol-Enein said there were plans to harness the new public enthusiasm by establishing a fund to finance research projects, to which the public can donate.

But other leading scientists have expressed caution about how enduring Egypt’s scientific changes might be.

Alaa Idris, chairman of the scientific research committee of the science-supporting foundation Misr El-Kheir, said: "Egyptians are still more concerned with issues such as increasing wages [and dealing with] street children and slum areas".

Idris said that, for real change to occur, the new Egyptian constitution should acknowledge the importance of scientific research and a law on science and technology should be passed next year.