Published online 3 February 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.67

News: Q&A

'Deep fury' of Egyptian scientists

Michael Harms, director of the Cairo office of the German Academic Exchange Service, offers a view from the Egyptian capital.

As the protests against President Hosni Mubarak gather pace across Egypt, the growing possibility of regime change is inspiring hope among many sectors of the population. The swelling number of protestors has seen academics add their voices to the call for change (see 'Scientists join protests on streets of Cairo to call for political reform').

But the volatile situation in the country inevitably means uncertainty for the scientific enterprise, and a stronger future for research will depend in part on support from international collaborators such as Germany, which has had strong scientific links with Egypt for decades.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which supports international academic cooperation, has had an outpost in Cairo for more than 50 years. In 2009, it funded 189 German academics in Egypt, and 679 Egyptian academics in Germany.

Michael Harms, director of the DAAD's Cairo office, spoke to Nature about the current situation and the prospects for the future.

Where are you now?

My team, as well as 55 German DAAD fellows, have been camping here in the office since Friday. We're located in the diplomatic quarter on the Zamalek Nile Island, just a few kilometres from Cairo's main square downtown and the centre of the protests. The situation here is still very critical: there are armed guys patrolling the streets, and there are militia everywhere.

What is the mood among Egyptian academics?

They basically share the same views with the majority of the protesters: a deep fury about the Mubarak regime. Most intellectuals say the regime is unfair and corrupt. But nobody really has a programme or a vision for the future, nor are there any common goals for the time to come.

The many academics I have spoken to do not think there is currently a political force which would be capable of unifying the country. Certainly they don't trust the Muslim Brotherhood [a leading political opposition group] to do it. There is also a widespread feeling that Western-style democracy is not a panacea for Egypt. But few have a good idea of what a political system that would suit Egypt should look like.

How would you describe Egyptian science?

There are many problems. Universities are critically under-funded and academic salaries are so low that most scientists need second jobs to be able to make a living. Tourist guides earn more money than most scientists. You just can't expect world-class research under these circumstances. Also, Egypt has no large research facilities, such as particle accelerators. Some 750,000 students graduate each year and flood the labour market, yet few find suitable jobs – one reason for the current wave of protests.

But there are some good scientists here, particularly those who have been able to study and work abroad for a while. The Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education has started some promising initiatives. For example, in 2007 it created the Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF), a Western-style funding agency. And Egypt is quite strong in renewable energies and, at least in some universities, in cancer research and pharmaceutical research.

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The Egyptian science minister, Hany Helal, is still in office. This is good news for us inasmuch as we need continuity, not least when it comes to funding ongoing projects and fellowships. Helal is in a better position than other ministers in the Mubarak government because many academics here perceive him as colleague rather than as part of the regime. Helal has previously overseen Egypt's involvement in a European Union-funded programme – Tempus – aimed at modernizing higher education in countries near the European Union.

How can Germany and other Western countries help Egyptian science to grow?

The worst they could do would be to discontinue existing programmes. There was a very successful German–Egyptian 'Year of Science' in 2007 [which promoted scientific collaborations]. We now have several co-financed master's and PhD programmes running, and there are a number of bilateral research projects in areas such as sustainable city development and renewable energy. There is also a €3.8-million (US$5.2-million) German–Egyptian Research Fund, jointly managed by the German science ministry, the DAAD and the STDF. Currently, there are 25 bilaterally funded research projects [in Egypt and Germany]. The next funding round is to be discussed at a steering committee meeting in March in Germany. We hope that the STDF will still exist then. 

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