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By    Tarek Heggy

The Arabic version of this article was published in Al-Ahram newspaper on 11/01/2000 .


To the same extent that it inspired a great surge of national pride and joy, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Ahmed Zeweil raised many questions about the state of scientific research and technological progress in Egypt. Although much has been said on the subject, I had the opportunity to hear two points of view on the same day which I believe encapsulate all that can possibly be said in this connection.

With all due respect to the proponents of the two viewpoints expressed on the day in question, I believe one was completely off the mark and the other absolutely correct. According to the first view, the only thing preventing us from being among the advanced nations of the world in the field of scientific research and its technological applications is a lack of resources. The other view holds that the problem lies in the climate of scientific research, which lacks the spirit of teamwork and the institutional framework which can serve and support the role of the researcher.

From my long experience in the world of management, I believe the people who rely on the lack-of-resources argument are motivated by an understandable, if misplaced, belief that this excuse absolves us of responsibility for the present state of affairs in the fields of theoretical and applied sciences.

There are tens of countries with a lower per capita income than ours and with huge economic problems that have surpassed us in these fields, but I will cite just one example here, namely, India, whose performance in these fields, particularly in the areas of atomic research and computer technology, is impressive by any standards. Thanks to its scientific and technological achievements, India is now a nuclear power. It is also the third largest exporter of software programs in the world and is expected to move up to second place, right behind the United States, by the end of this year.

The massive economic and social problems plaguing India, including a severe shortage of financial resources, have not prevented it from scoring remarkable results in these areas, both of which are based on advanced scientific research. While there are many other similar examples, this example alone is sufficient to rebut the argument that what prevents us from building an advanced and efficient scientific infrastructure is nothing but a lack of resources.

To attribute our inability to develop an advanced scientific infrastructure to a lack of resources is wrong not only because it is based on faulty reasoning but because it allows us to indulge ourselves in a rationale of justification that prevents us from exercising the required degree of self-criticism. What we really lack is modern working methods in the field of scientific research, governed by up-to-date management systems that can provide the necessary elements of success by nurturing people of superior ability, developing the spirit of teamwork, putting an end to the practice of fighting talented people and removing from the world of scientific research the values of careerism and political ambition that have pervaded it over the last few decades.

The problem is thus one of management rather than resources. Overcoming it entails removing from the management process the elements that have led to our present state of backwardness in the domain of scientific research. We must have the courage to admit that unless we diagnose the ills and change the general climate prevailing in that domain we will never be able to overcome the present state of affairs. It is necessary here to entrust Egyptian scientists living abroad with the task of diagnosing the ills and prescribing the means of treating them, as the members of the local scientific community are often too close to the trees to see the forest. Moreover, they could find it embarrassing to direct any criticism at their administrative superiors. That is not to say that our scientists are unable to diagnose the problem, define its reasons and propose the mode of treatment, only that what might be embarrassing for them would be less so for Egyptian scientists living abroad. Such hierarchical constraints can be a real obstacle on the way to reforming the scientific climate in Egypt.

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