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Egypt’s ‘science city’ will not build a science culture without its people empowered by academic experience abroad, argues Austin Dacey.
There was a big day for ‘big science’ in Egypt last month. On 1 June the Egyptian cabinet approved a budget that increased spending on science by almost one third, from US$66.5 million to US$90.5 million, and pledged to create up to 50,000 new research jobs.
The same day saw the cabinet approve the long-discussed Zewail City of Science and Technology, named after Ahmed Zewail, the Egyptian-born Nobel laureate, a professor at the California Institute of Technology and one of the first US ‘science envoys’ appointed by president Barack Obama’s administration.
Meanwhile, in a recent editorial in Science, editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts has called for the building of a culture of science in Egypt.
But much of the emphasis in Egypt is on links with industry, not basic science, and big-budget construction projects alone will not necessarily build a science culture. For that, there is a more modest yet time-tested means: empowering individuals. And one of the best ways to empower them is through academic exchanges and scholarships for study abroad.
Promoting science culture
In 1942, the American sociologist Robert Merton investigated the "cultural structure of science", which he defined as a set of values and mores — universalism, communalism, disinterestedness and organised scepticism. These are "transmitted by precept and example" and "internalised by the scientist, thus fashioning his scientific conscience".
A culture of science flourishes in an environment that includes plenty of basic research, as it encourages the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, rewards imaginative trial and error, and links professional advancement to intellectual prestige among peers.
Academic exchanges with universities in Europe or the United States offer unrivalled opportunities to engage in basic science. But government partnerships with private industry — such as those being discussed by Egypt — can be expected to favour technologies with immediate commercial applications.
More importantly, education is more than the transfer of information from one mind to another. It involves acquiring new thinking habits, daily routines and dispositions of character. This kind of personal transformation takes place among people as they come to know each other and pursue collaborative ventures.
Such relationships are of paramount importance, according to Cairo-based Mohammed Yahia, editor of Nature Middle East, because "the everyday interaction between the different cultures rubs off on each other and brings them both closer".
No new cultural exchange
But Yahia has seen no increase in scholarships and visiting fellowships in Egypt in recent years.
In the ‘new beginning’ speech in Cairo in 2009, Barack Obama pledged that the United States would invest in the scientific future of the region. But many resources have gone to large-scale, high-profile projects such a partnership with Saudi Arabia on satellite production, a partnership with Jordan on nanotechnology, and also the science envoys.
Marking the one year anniversary of the Cairo speech, the US State Department announced that it was giving US$5 million to a programme that promotes "stronger entrepreneurial culture and entrepreneurship — with material economic impacts — across MENA [Middle East and North Africa] and Asia".
About half of that was allocated to a series of conferences in cooperation with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now renamed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Yahia says that individual exchanges can do much more than conferences and talks. "Talking is one thing, but sharing time and effort, and working on something that is universal and bypasses cultural and language barriers, is something totally different."
Meanwhile, the US State Department has said it has yet to begin work on a ‘Young Scientist Global Exchange program’.
A successful model
One model of empowerment can be found in the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which has supported international academic cooperation for more than 50 years.
In 2010, DAAD sponsored 1,184 academic exchanges between Germany and Egypt. A total of 847 Egyptian students, graduates and researchers were supported for study visits and research in Germany.
According to Michael Harms, director of DAAD’s Cairo office, the vast majority of scholarship recipients return to seek work in Egypt, where they are highly successful on the job market.
This is precisely the kind of programme that should be central to Egypt’s strategy for scientific development. The short-term building of technological capacity, while important, must not be pursued at the expense of long-term building of cultural capacity.
The commitments are in place. The US–Egypt Joint Science and Technology Fund, which provides research grants — and includes opportunities for junior scientist development visits — was tripled in 2010.
People first, bricks second
Zewail has said that the City of Science and Technology will "arm young Egyptian students with the modern sciences they need to compete internationally". This may be an appealing vision, but it is far from clear how the preliminary US$2 billion will be raised, when work will begin, and what precisely will take place on the 110 hectare site.
The admirable career of Zewail himself was not launched from a science city, eponymous or otherwise. Instead, he personally secured a scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania to pursue a PhD, despite bureaucratic hurdles at home.
In this, he was encouraged by his advisors, including one who had also studied abroad at the same university. Zewail understands better than most that a culture of science is not built brick by brick but person by person.