Farouk El-Baz on the state of science

Published online 17 February 2010

Mohammed Yahia

Born and raised in Egypt, Farouk El-Baz is perhaps best known in the US as the face of the Apollo Program. But the well-renowned researcher has gone full circle, using science to address many of the problems in the Middle East.

He received his B.Sc. in chemistry and geology from Ain Shams University, Cairo. After that he moved to the US to continue his studies there, receiving his M.S. and PhD from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

El-Baz, research professor and director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, USA, worked with NASA from 1967 to 1972. During the Apollo years, he joined NASA officials in briefing members of the press on the results of the lunar missions. "The King", as he is affectionately known by other astronauts, has an ability to simplify complex issues into easy to understand words that has made him a favourite with colleagues and the press alike.

His outstanding teaching abilities were confirmed by the Apollo astronauts. While circling the moon for the first time during Apollo mission 15, Alfred Worden said, "After the King's training, I feel like I've been here before."

Today, El-Baz serves as a science advisor to many Gulf states, advising on how to raise the profile of science in the Middle East. He is usually an attendant in all large science conferences in the region and is a strong advocate to promoting an upheaval in the educational systems to improve life in the region.

Is the time ripe in the Middle East now for a science renaissance in the region? El-Baz answers that, and more, in his interview with Nature Middle East.

Do you think science diplomacy could be an effective tool for the West to reach out to Arab countries? What is the potential of this tool in the coming period?

This is a new initiative, and we cannot judge it at infancy. However, it is a good start and may have potential in at least convincing the leadership in the Arab world to change directions and emphasize benefit of the society rather than benefit of the ruler. In many ways, young and small countries in the Arab world have taken advantage of this potential and are benefiting greatly from such offers for help. This includes countries like Qatar, U.A.E., and Bahrain. Others like Jordan and Tunisia are also benefiting from such offers, and perhaps this new trend in diplomacy can play a role in improving the status of science in the Arab world.

What is your opinion of the state of science, science research, and science education in the Middle East right now?

There is no question that the last three decades have witnessed a decline in education and science and scientific research in general throughout the Arab world, and particularly in Egypt. There could be many reasons for this, but to me they appear to be related to emphasis on valuing accumulation of fortune at the expense of knowledge. People tend to respect accumulators of fortunes and show disregard for knowledge seekers. Thus, it is a sociological problem that was born by opening the economic structure to private sector fortune accumulators that gave scant attention to building the society's technical ability.

There are a lot of well-equipped large universities opening up in the Gulf Region now, such as King Abdallah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Does this signal the start of a scientific renaissance in the Middle East?

It certainly could be. No one can judge at this early date whether one university can change a country like Saudi Arabia. But it is certainly possible if the creation of KUAST is taken as a challenge by older universities to improve their faculty and students to rise to the needs of the country.

Does the presence of well-funded and well-equipped universities guarantee the birth of a science research culture or does more need to be done?

The scientific research culture is nurtured by long traditions of thought and procedures to assure the prevalence of the rules of the established scientific method of inquiry. You need a whole generation of well educated professionals to establish that culture.

What can countries in the Middle East do to stop – and maybe reverse – the brain drain that has been going on for quite some time in the past?

There are certain conditions that are required for that, including the following:

-Appointing the best-able individuals as managers of to leadership positions in research institutions to promote excellence

-increasing the budgets allocated for scientific research, aside from the salaries

-implementing programmes for innovations in the industrial production sector

-motivating young generations of researchers by rewards, awards and recognition

-encouraging researchers to publish results in international peer-reviewed journals

-collaborating in research activities with internationally renowned research centers.

Will international professors and researchers be interested to come and perform their work in the Middle East now?

I actually do not see that because such experts would seek collaboration with people of their calibre or better. It is very rare to see that in the Arab world of today. There is no specific benefit for anyone to relocate to the region for better research. Perhaps later, if conditions significantly improve.

Do you think there is an over-emphasis on applied sciences research rather than basic sciences research in the region? If yes, do you think this is a problem?

Not at all, they are both components of the same thing. Research can be done at all levels and neither basic nor applied research can be done at high levels without the other.

One of the most important roles of science is to improve a community. Is the science research being conducted in the region well-reflected on the livelihood of the people?

This is a critical point. Researches in the Arab world in general have failed to explain how their research benefits society. In large measure this is due to the fact that Arab countries import nearly all their needs and little is produced or drastically improved upon locally. Thus, there is nothing tangible for the people to see and feel that is the product of their own researches.

In your opinion, what are the changes that must take place in the education systems in the Middle East right now?

The most essential change is to limit rote learning and allow students to question propositions and voice opinions based on their own understanding. The only way science can develop is by not accepting "facts" unless a person can clearly understand that they are based on logic as well as proven by experiments.

A lot of poorer countries in the region cannot afford such high profile universities as the new ones in the Gulf Region, what can these countries do to promote science in their communities?

It is not true that great universities are the products of rich countries. At one time the Azhar University and Cairo University both had international standing in Islamic jurisprudence and law and science, respectively. Now, both are among the list of mediocre institutions that produce graduates who are not trained for the needs of the present world. In addition, in recent times, poorer countries like Malaysia revamped the educational system with very little funding to produce a dependable workforce that can compete in the world market. Poor counties in the Arab world can follow that same route if their leadership has the vision, determination and if they keep the benefit of their average citizen as their long-term objective.