Editorial | Published:

Line in the sand

Nature volume 470, page 306 (17 February 2011) | Download Citation

In the wake of the revolution, Egypt should embrace a future based on scientific thinking.

On Saturday, Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who helped to instigate Egypt's revolution and has become its reluctant icon, tweeted, “Go back to your work on Sunday, work like never before and help Egypt become a developed country.”

More than two weeks of nationwide protests have finally toppled Hosni Mubarak, president of the country and leader of its repressive regime since 1981, who handing power to Egypt's Supreme Military Council in the early evening of 11 February. Considerable political uncertainty remains, but activists and intellectuals are vigilant, and insist that they will protect their revolution. This was a peaceful uprising, in which groups of educated youth attracted millions onto the streets to call for democracy, freedom and change: a movement with an uplifting sense of civic responsibility. For the first time, the faces of ordinary young Egyptians — and their aspirations for fundamental civil liberties and self-determination — could be seen internationally. So, what happens now, and what will it mean for science's role in the development of the Arab world's most populous nation?

Egypt's intellectuals and youth largely share Ghonim's instinct that their most urgent task is to begin a radical reconstruction of the country's society and economy. They know that an overhaul of the education and science systems will be crucial to this restructuring, unleashing the bottled-up energy and creativity of a youth that has been stifled for too long. Leading Egyptian researchers — including Ahmed Zewail, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is currently in Egypt to lend his hand to efforts to transition to democracy — are right to argue that education and research must be a top priority. They will be vital to taking the new Egypt and its young workforce into the twenty-first century, and to creating a more enlightened and productive society.

Research in Egypt, as in much of the Arab world, has long lagged behind that elsewhere, receiving only a paltry 0.2–0.3% of gross domestic product. Mubarak's regime was preoccupied instead with geopolitical security — an interest shared by the United States and other Western powers that propped it up — and neglected to invest in the infrastructure necessary for an educated and creative workforce. This contributed to the accumulation of social and economic woes that helped the revolution to win popular support.

As in Tunisia, the scene of an equally successful uprising this year, Egypt's repressive regime stifled research initiatives, and placed its cronies, rather than top scientists, in positions of academic power. Frustrated scientists left to seek opportunities abroad. Education in the country suffers similar problems: it is often based on rote learning, which smothers debate, creative thinking and entrepreneurship. As one Egyptian researcher told Nature, the universities “are simply assembly lines that produce thousands of unskilled graduates every year”.

With sufficient investment, realistic plans can be drawn up to reform and revamp Egypt's education and research systems. Vast expertise is available both inside and outside the country. But that alone will not be enough: democracy, freedom and a new culture that encourages criticism and creativity must underpin any reforms. As Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, put it to Nature on the eve of Mubarak's fall: “Building science is not just a question of money and projects, it is also about a whole climate of research, of freedom of enquiry, freedom of expression, education, the ability to question.”

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