Science in Egypt: Past, Present, and Future

During my lifetime, I’ve witnessed huge changes in the status of science and scientific research in Egypt. The up and down cycles reflected political upheavals, and should be considered in the context of historical events, and the resulting societal responses.  Throughout my high school years, teachers were motivated and highly respected and were intent on preparing us to serve the country, with emphasis on ending British occupation. Similarly, our university professors were trained in Europe and made sure that our education was equivalent to that abroad. When I came to the U.S. for graduate study, I competed with the best of my classmates. Thus, my generation benefited enormously from the prevailing attitude of the importance of education and scientific research in creating a free and self-sustaining nation.
The positive stamina persisted throughout the early years of Egypt’s revolution of 1952. Great strides were made and new research facilities were established in various fields. However, President Nasser concentrated on his standing regionally and internationally – domestic affairs began to suffer. The breaking point was the “Six Day War” with Israel, resulting in the loss of the Sinai Peninsula. The fact that there was no accounting of what led to that incomprehensible defeat precipitated societal resignation, and expenditure on better education and advanced research was seen as a luxury.
Sadat took the reigns in 1971, and became rightly occupied by regaining the Sinai, which led to the Camp David Accords and peace between Egypt and Israel. His tenure of ten years was dedicated to that important milestone, to which he gave his life.
When Mubarak took the reigns in 1981, a downward spiral began in education andscientific research. The main reason was lack of vision, imagination, or any understanding of the role of scientific research in the proper development of the nation. Institutions began to deteriorate, taking with them products of the education systems. The uppermost segment of the society became corrupt and lived high on the hog; the rest of the population floundered.
This desperate situation led to the revolt of January 2011 as the youth who had lost both respect and fear of the “the State”. Their act became internationally celebrated, and they expected immediate positive results. In reality, uprooting a system may happen in a fortnight, but rebuilding a proper state requires time. In reality, it was fortunate that the messy post-revolution period lasted only four years; similar popular revolts in France, Russia and others took a decade or more to bear fruit.
One of the first actions of the newly elected President Sisi was to appoint an “Advisory Council of Scientists and Technologists” to help him steer the country in the right direction. Naturally, the first topics on the agenda include education, professional training, and scientific research. Thus, its first task has been to recommend sweeping changes to the education system from K-12 through academic degrees, to prepare future generations for participation in better economic development. The government has begun to take steps in the right direction, including appointment of a geologist in his 30s as scientific adviser to the Prime Minister.
To me, such moves are essential in order to benefit from the knowledge and energy of the youth. I learned this through participation in NASA’s project of lunar exploration. During the Apollo program, we calculated the average age of those responsible for the missions to be 26 years. This assured the physical ability to work uninterrupted for many hours, and more so for utilizing new ideas and unencumbered innovation.
It is encouraging that the youth of Egypt no longer await government handouts, and began initiatives dedicated to a better country. A group created a plan for “Egypt 20-30”, another established an electronic “Tahrir Academy” to spread knowledge throughout the country. Furthermore, young Egyptian professionals who are living abroad began to prepare lectures to spread knowledge through the Internet in TEDxCairo.
Innovation in science and technology has also attracted the youth of Egypt. Many more students are participating in competitions at home and abroad. For the first time ever, Egyptian youths have participated in NASA-sponsored competitions. The Qatar-based “Stars of Science” program has yearly included more than one competitor from Egypt. The Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF) included several Egyptian women in science conferences. Recently, ASTF also established “The El-Baz Competition for Arab Contributions to Development and Innovation”. That competition is held in Egypt and aims at awarding 1,000,000 Egyptian Pounds to winner innovators later this year.
The events of the last half a decade were momentous. They betray an awakening of the society in Egypt to the value of good education and the benefits of scientific research. The positive developments are being led by the youth of the country, which bodes well for a better future.