Report assesses state of Egyptian science

Published online 21 January 2013

Opportunities to boost science exist in Egypt, but will not be enough alone to transform the country's research landscape, according to a new prestigious report.

Mohammed Yahia

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has become an important player in research in Egypt.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina has become an important player in research in Egypt.
© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Egyptian researchers are increasingly collaborating with their counterparts in neighbouring countries and in the West, helping to revive Egypt's ailing science, technology and innovation (STI) sector. Limited connections between academia and industry and inadequate research funding, however, continue to stifle scientific research, according to a report commissioned by a consortium.

The report Science and innovation in Egypt, was released on 31 December 2012 and is the product of an international consortium involving The Royal Society, The British Council, Nature and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) among other partners, and aims to assess the prospects for science and technology in Egypt.

Rising research budget

Between 2004 and 2010, government spending on R&D averaged 0.25% of gross domestic product (GDP), slightly less than the national average in sub-Saharan Africa and almost a tenth of that in developed states. It is also far lower than the 1% target set out by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for its member states. However, Egypt's new government has increased spending to 0.4% of GDP.

"In 2012, science spending in the budget went up further to 0.6% of GDP and we have promises that it will increase this year to 0.8%, but that is still not finalised," says Maged Al-Sherbiny, president of the government-sponsored think tank Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT), with headquarters in Cairo.

There's a cultural resistance to the notion that academics and industry can help each other.

Government-funded research centres operating under the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research received over half a billion Egyptian pounds (US$75 million) in funding in 2011, nearly 50% more than in 2010. The increase will go towards scientific research as well as running costs and increased salaries for researchers. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, has pledged to continue increasing funding, according to the report.

"The increase is good news of course," says Michael Bond, the report's lead researcher. "But I agree with Alaa Adris, chairman of the scientific research committee of the Misr El-Kheir Foundation, who said that increasing the budget for research without changing the system of innovation 'makes this money worthless'."

Al-Sherbiny hopes for government spending on science to reach 2% of GDP within five years. "This still remains our ultimate goal, but to reach that the private sector has to step up and be involved by at least 30%, but this isn't happening yet. Industries are still struggling to maintain themselves, let alone invest in R&D."

The report advocates a national research policy that allocates funding to research areas of strategic importance to Egypt. While this approach may favour applied research, Al-Sherbiny stresses that basic research will not be left out, but spending should be tightly controlled "We can't spend all the money we have haphazardly. We have to target it to be problem-focused. As it stands, we aim to divide the funding to allocate roughly 35% to basic research and 65% to targeted research."

"The need for useful applied research is so great in Egypt — there are so many issues in agriculture, health, food, energy, etc. where science-driven innovation could help — that it must be a risk worth taking, especially since resources are limited," adds Bond.

Private sector and R&D

A poor education system dominated by rote learning and memorisation fails to inspire students.

The increase in science spending "has to be combined with a serious push by all stakeholders to involve the private sector," says Tarek Khalil, provost of Nile University, Cairo.

Bond suggests that the biggest challenge to improving science in Egypt is "the terrible lack of interaction between industry and the private sector on the one hand, and universities and research centres on the other."

According to the report, only 5% of science spending in the country comes from non-governmental sources, which is among the lowest contributions anywhere. The private sector does not trust that academics can help it generate new products.

"We need to build up this trust," says Al-Sherbiny. "We need to change their culture to appreciate R&D."

On the other hand, very few researchers have any business training or entrepreneurship skills that would help translate their ideas in the lab to market opportunities. "One of the biggest hurdles to addressing this is mindset. There's a cultural resistance to the notion that academics and industry can help each other," says Bond.

The ASRT is approaching private companies in different industrial sectors and offering them sector-tailored solutions to improve their products, says Al-Sherbiny. "We tell them that we will fund the research and if it works, they can use the resulting technologies. This will show them the value of R&D and eventually they will start contributing to it."

International collaborations

Cairo University is Egypt's largest academic establishment, reported to have some 265,000 students.
Cairo University is Egypt's largest academic establishment, reported to have some 265,000 students.

Increasingly, science research is becoming an international collaborative effort, and Egypt is no exception. The number of papers published by Egyptians with international collaborators has jumped from 687 in 2001 to 2,906 in 2009.

According to the report, Egypt is poised to become a regional leader in North Africa and the Middle East in renewable energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, agriculture and pharmaceutical research. It suggests that a research funding mechanism between Arab or Islamic states, who share common problems like water and energy insecurity and desertification, could promote collaboration.

Al-Sherbiny says there are no plans for this to happen anytime in the near future, however. "We have seen some efforts in non-governmental organizations, but there has been nothing between different governments so far. There are some bilateral efforts, such as between Egypt and Syria, but nothing multilateral."

Creaking education system

While scientists are pushing for a greater role in solving the country's problems, many young Egyptians are shunning science. The number of pupils pursuing science majors at university has dropped from 69.2% to 32.8% over the past four decades. "This reflects a cultural shift in society," says Khalil. "There's a general lack of appreciation of science among students who turn to 'easier' subjects because science careers are not rewarding."

A poor education system dominated by rote learning and memorisation fails to inspire students. Bond adds that the surveys conducted for the report suggest that a "focus on facts rather than debate and lack of critical thinking made [science] dull, and it didn't give students the skills they needed to be scientists".

Egypt's large population of young people has strained the education system considerably. There are around 2.5 million students pursuing higher education in just 34 universities. The country has fewer universities per head of population than any other country in the Middle East.

"There's a significant role here for educators. The importance of science, technology and innovation must be ingrained in the minds of all students," says Khalil. "We need a unified effort to reward people in science and technology and increase rewarding job opportunities in these fields."