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  • A New Dawn for (Research in) Egypt
Feb 2011
Feb. 22, 2011 — The historic events in Egypt this month brought together broad swaths of the country’s population, unified in their demands for sweeping reform and the return of freedoms denied them over the course of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Among those participating in and supporting the protests: mothers and sons, students and workers, doctors and lawyers.

And researchers in the sciences. “We academics are supporting the current protest movement by all possible means,” Hassan Azzazy told Nature in a Q&A published online on February 8. Azzazy is a chemist and associate dean for graduate studies at the private, non-profit American University in Cairo. Reform and the granting of academic and other freedoms will be essential, he said, to establishing a healthy and competitive research community in the country.

Egypt has a long, proud history of scientific inquiry. Ibn al-Haytham, whose 11th-century Book of Optics is considered by many one of the most influential tomes in all of physics, lived much of his life in Cairo and died there in 1040. In more recent times, however, it has lagged behind other countries.

In a report issued late last year, Egypt’s state-run Central Auditing Organization (CAO) rebuked the country’s universities for the relatively low number of research papers they publish in scientific journals, according to Egyptian newspaper and website Al-Masry Al-Youm. Of the 60 top scientific papers recently published in the Middle East and Africa, the report said, 47 were from Israel, seven from South Africa, four from Saudi Arabia, and none from Egypt.

What might account for this? The CAO pointed to inadequate funding as one of the culprits, noting that only 0.2 percent of total national income was devoted to education, with three quarters of that earmarked for paying salaries. As a result, researchers often don’t have modern equipment and reference materials. The report also cited rising enrollment figures, outdated curricula, and a focus on quantity rather than quality of research.

There’s more to the story, though. Egypt has for some years suffered a pronounced brain drain, with its most promising researchers, entrepreneurs and experts emigrating to other countries in search of better opportunities.

“The brain drain is a very serious and worsening problem,” Azzazy said, “and many highly qualified researchers have left Egypt permanently because of the repression of human rights.” It used to be that Egypt lost its best and brightest to Europe and North America, but today it is losing many of them to state-of-the-art research centers and universities in the Middle East and Asia.

In the wake of the revolution that drove Mubarak from power, Egypt has an opportunity to address its decline in the sciences. The new government – whatever form it may take – can implement a strategic national agenda for scientific research, increasing funding and fostering collaboration between industry and academia. And it can encourage Egyptian researchers to come home, by direct appeal and by creating an environment in which they would want to work.

Restoration of human rights is quite obviously an end it itself. Here, though, as in many cases where such rights have been curtailed, it can also contribute to academic and intellectual renewal, and to increased prosperity for a nation and its people.

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