A special Al Fanar report from Cairo
Five years ago, a chemistry professor at the American University in Cairo, Hassan Azzazy started a research group with some of his graduate students to develop affordable medical solutions -- work that could be “converted into prototypes and go to market,” he says.
Now, millions of Mr. Azzazy’s fellow Egyptians may benefit from his work.
Using nano-technology, the chemistry professor and his students have developed a new, cheap and fast diagnostic test for hepatitis C, a disease that affects 22 percent of Egyptians. (Until now, diagnosing hepatitis C has been time-consuming and expensive, requiring two laboratory tests).
Mr. Azzazy is in the final stages of negotiating with his university to create his own company to market this and other new medical diagnostic tests.
"This is probably the first spin-off company to come out of any Egyptian university," he says. "Hopefully this will be a milestone."
Stories like Mr. Azzazy's are still rare in the Arab world, where scientific research at universities is under-funded and what research does take place often has little connection to the needs of the society or to opportunities in the market.
A recently released report on science and innovation in Egypt notes that “there is near-unanimous agreement that decades of under-investment, poor planning of the way research funds are spent, excessive bureaucracy, uninspiring curricula and political meddling have severely weakened a system that once regularly produced scientists who were among the best in the world.”
Yet there are also encouraging signs. Government agencies are increasingly recognizing the importance of science and innovation to creating economic growth and employment. Non-governmental organizations are trying to encourage young innovators. The Arab Spring has raised the public's expectations and made it even more urgent to tap into the country’s human potential -- Egypt has tens of thousands of talented scientists.
The report, published by the Royal Society, a fellowship of distinguished scientists, is part of an Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation. A report on Malaysia was issued last year and reports on Jordan, Indonesia and Senegal are forthcoming.
The goal of the Egypt report, says lead writer Michael Bond, is to “draw attention to state of science and education in Egypt; to generate discussion about the direction it's going in; to look at areas it's failing and the areas it's succeeding; and to identify opportunities for collaboration between researchers and industry, government and NGOs, both inside and outside the country.”
In most of the Middle East, government investment in research and development is under one percent of GDP (the target set by the OIC for member countries). In Egypt, from 2004 to 2010, it was .025 percent on average. The private sector contributes a minuscule fraction of this already scant investment.
The report also notes that science is generally taught in an uninspiring and theoretical manner and students are not encouraged to tackle real-world problems or think of commercial applications for their research. Since 2006, the proportion of students studying science, medical and engineering-based subjects has remained flat or declined, and stands at only 20 percent today.
While researching the report, says Mr. Bond, he encountered “a huge dissatisfaction with the state of the educational system, in particular compared with how it was 30 years ago, and a lot of dissatisfaction with the way science students were being educated and their lack of preparedness for working in the real world.”
"The economy is weak because we’re not developing our own know-how,” says Mr. Azzazy of AUC. “The universities have little resources and no vision and interest in societal problems."
Yet here and across the region, governments and universities are increasingly aware of the need to support useful scientific research and to create links between academia and industry. In the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Gulf, the authorities have launched several well-funded, high-profile scientific ventures, from the King Abdulla University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to the Masdar Institute in the United Arab Emirates. The scientific output of such institutions, of course, remains to be seen.
In Egypt, public entities such as the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology have multiplied efforts to support applied research and create links between academia and business.
The academy has instituted a competitive grant-making process and started a program to find graduate research projects with commercial potential. A new project encourages young Egyptians to visit the country’s sprawling slums and find innovative solutions to everyday problems there. The project’s trademark idea so far is the prototype for a domestically produced, electricity-operated “tok-tok,” or three-wheeled truck. Tok-toks are the only viable means of transportation in the narrow, unpaved roads of Egypt’s slums, but until now they have been imported from India and China.
In Egypt today, says Maged El-Sherbiny, the president of the academy, “All the political parties are supportive of science and technology. They feel its value. The problem is all of them are occupied by other things, because of the political situation.” For the last two years, the country has been bogged down by political power struggles and ongoing unrest. Government investment in research and development nonetheless rose to .6 percent of GDP last year, says Mr. El-Sherbiny, and should reach .8 percent next year.
Ultimately, the quality of scientific education cannot improve significantly without a restructuring and an increase in funding to Egypt’s over-burdened national universities, says Mr. El-Sherbiny.
In the meantime, he says, “you have to try as much as possible to economize what you are spending and to spend it in the right way. We can't afford to lose a penny.”
Other suggestions to support science and innovation in Egypt include harmonizing the work of existing research centers; providing scientists resources and training on how to commercialize their research; and passing new laws to free universities to pursue commercial partnerships and applications.
Governments, private enterprises and academics all need to embrace a new way of doing things, says Abdulla Al Najjar, a professor of physics at the University of Sharjah and the president of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting Arab scientists.
“It's an ecosystem,” says Mr. Al Najjar, “You have to have all the pieces in place for the flow of ideas to go directly to the market.”
In the past, says Mr. Al Najjar, many academics in the Arab world viewed research as a theoretical exercise. And there is significant mistrust between academia and the private sector: Investors don’t understand many new technologies and see financing start-ups as risky. Scientists fear having their ideas stolen, or being cut of the profits.
But, says Mr. Al Najjar, across the Arab world today there is “a hunger for developing ideas and research into business. The culture is changing.” More and more academics are submitting proposals to his foundation’s competitions, whose purpose is to highlight the market potential of scientific research and bring scientists with good ideas to the attention of investors.
In the long term, Mr. Bond believes the Arab Spring could prove a boon to scientific research. In Egypt, he notes, “the revolution unleashed this desire to change things and this realization of the potential that's there. Before, there were slow reforms ongoing in several Arab countries. But in terms of grassroots feeling towards how science can change people's lives, I think the Arab Spring will have a massive impact.”
But not, he notes, “while there's violence and political unrest. And a lot will depend whether people can retain that sense of optimism and hold on to that vision.”