Mahmoud Saif el-Deen, a student in the department of physics and chemistry at Ain Shams University’s College of Science, says he faces great difficulties when trying to do research. The college laboratories lack many of the basics needed to conduct physics research, such as computers, proper transformers, specialized motors, and basic chemicals. Scientific research in Egypt won’t improve until laboratories get more investment, scientists say.
“We do not even have good salt in our laboratories to conduct experiments,” el-Deen said.
El-Deen is one of thousands of students in Egypt’s 24 science faculties at public universities who are supposed to conduct research and practical experiments but find themselves unable to do so because college laboratories lack what they need.
The Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education is now trying to fix this issue with a new program called “Science Up.” The project will have a budget of 90 million Egyptian pounds ($5,000,000) and will seek to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of university research and development laboratories.
The project will be rolled out in several stages. The first stage will last three years and will focus on mathematics and physics.
A Boost for Research in Egypt
Moawad el-Kholy, a former president of Menoufia University and head of the Basic Sciences Commission in the Supreme Council of Universities, says the program represents a major boost for scientific research in Egypt. “Science colleges are among the most productive research colleges, despite their weaknesses,” he said. “The new project will certainly contribute to a qualitative shift in research and its results.”
Hani al-Husseini, professor of mathematics at Cairo University’s Faculty of Science, agrees with el-Kholy about the importance of the new project. “The initiative is an important, positive and a long-awaited step to support and develop university research,” he said.
The program’s first stage includes the modernization and maintenance of central research laboratories in science faculties, quick grants for research in mathematics and theoretical physics, as well as the establishment of “incubators” for talent in science and mathematics. The incubation programs will seek out promising students
“The new project will certainly contribute to a qualitative shift in research and its results.”Moawad el-Kholy
Head of the Basic Sciences Commission in the Supreme Council of Universities
before they enter universities and give them financial support and mentoring once they become undergraduates.
In addition, computing and big-data processing centers will be built at Cairo University, the Library of Alexandria and the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology. The new program will also provide short-term scholarships so students can spend one to three months in distinguished science institutions abroad.
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Physics and mathematics departments have suffered more than others, experts say.
“The capabilities of these faculties are very weak and their own resources are almost non-existent because they are considered basic sciences,” said Mahmoud Sakr, head of the Academy for Scientific Research and Technology, a government agency affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education that brings together scientists from universities and other institutions to develop scientific solutions for the country’s problems.
Supporting Basic Research
Sakr said that other colleges of applied science, such as agriculture, medicine and engineering, have funding from sources other than the government. They can market products, provide services or work with the industrial sector.
“Most institutions and donors in Egypt do not support theoretical sciences such as mathematics and physics, because they do not provide direct services,” he said.
But funding is not the only problem faced by those who want to do basic research.
Al-Husseini, of Cairo University, notes the importance of ensuring freedom of movement for researchers, supporting their travel opportunities, and bringing in visiting professors from foreign universities, research centers and major companies to teach modern courses and train faculty members. Egyptian professors are required to get security clearances before traveling, and the time
“Most institutions and donors in Egypt do not support theoretical sciences such as mathematics and physics, because they do not provide direct services.”Mahmoud Sakr
Head of the Academy for Scientific Research and Technology
required to obtain such clearances can prevent many of them from traveling to visit other laboratories or attend international meetings. (See a related article, “Not Just Money: Arab Region Researchers Face a Complex Web of Barriers.”)
“We are isolated from the world,” he said. “There must be a solution.”
Sakr said that the program will support the travel of mathematics researchers to attend international conferences, provide financial incentives to support full-time researchers, and give researchers personal computers and software.
According to el-Kholy, of the Basic Sciences Commission, the program will support research projects in each math and physics faculty with an estimated one million Egyptian pounds ($64,000). The colleges will be chosen on the basis of the research projects they propose. In addition, the program will support each of the science colleges’ laboratories with two million pounds ($128,000) for the current year and provide financial incentives for researchers who publish their research in internationally recognized periodicals.
Sakr believes that basic research in Egypt is the true entry point for innovation, applied research, emerging technologies and future science.
“We cannot have the technology of artificial intelligence, big data processing, space, and the genetics revolution without laying a solid foundation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, geology, and biology,” he said.