Cairo –Al Ahram – In Egypt, there are at least 125 scientific research centers affiliated with official ministries, agencies and universities, working without any coordination and nothing to bring them together except for a fictitious place called “The Supreme Council for Research Centers and Institutes”. This happens in the absence of clarity in spending financial allocations available in a sector where disbursed money is normally ten times more than what is declared.
Inside the scientific research world, the picture is bleak
Here in Nasr city, top research centers stand next to each other, but each one has a point of reference. The Radiation and New and Renewable Energy Research Center follows the Ministry of Electricity. The Petroleum Research Institute is supervised by the Ministry of Scientific Research. As you get ready to enter the latter, you have to conceal your identity as a journalist and pretend you are a visitor, even if your host is someone like Dr. Maher Al-Sukkari, the former Director of the Petroleum Research Institute.
When you ask him about the redundancy and duality in scientific research, he laughs to conceal his sorrow: “Scientific research, which pushed countries, like Malaysia and Brazil, forward, is what pulls us backwards. There is no plan for accountability or direction.
The researcher places himself above accountability.” Dr. Al-Sukkari adds: “There is no national plan for research centers, or for the state itself in this field, let alone the refusal of researchers to commit to research plans or to succumb to accountability on the extent of achieving objectives. Everybody compete over incompletion, with excuses such as the lack of chemicals, financing or equipment. All are flimsy excuses.”
He adds: “We have an X-Ray machine at the institute that is worth $ 1.5 million to analyze soil and minerals. The two centers mentioned above also have one each, as well as other research centers. One or two samples are run on the machine every month, at a test cost of $3,000 to $4,000 per sample. Testing such samples in a country like England is better and less expensive.”
We slip out quickly to meet a senior researcher at the Petroleum Research Institute, where we are met by Dr. Sami Al-Farmawi, a professor at the institute, with a quiet smile on his face. “Egypt is not a rich country for such equipment to be available at every research facility like this. Repetition, as an example, is clear between this institute, Al-Tabayyun Institute and the National Research Institute. The X-ray machine, for example, is available at this Institute and at centers in close vicinity. In most cases, only one machine is operating at any point in time.”
“Egypt’s problem was never the lack of capabilities, but in managing them,” continues Dr. Farmawi, pointing to the fact that one of the reasons behind India’s scientific revival is refraining from wasting capacities by owning multiple machines.
Information gathered by this writer in the course of his investigation proved the results of a study by the Ministry of Administrative Development, which found that the spreading of authority over scientific research centers and institutes among a number of ministries and agencies resulted in duality in the plans of these centers and institutes.”
This study drew attention to something even more serious; namely, that “the evaluation system in scientific research has changed into a system to obtain promotions only, and that it now depends on theoretical or practical research in form only, and not in content, let alone the prevalence of the individuality phenomenon in scientific research.”
In a questionnaire distributed by Al-Ahram to a sample of 127 researchers in the National Research Center and the Petroleum Research Institute, 73% of the respondents attributed the scientific research crisis to the bad management of funding available. 72.6% of them saw that the budget is wasted on matters that do not benefit researchers, and 96.4% of the sample respondents believe that there is no integration in scientific research, and 70.2% emphasized that coordination is absent. Regarding the climate of scientific research, 8.10% believe that it is reasonable, 55% believe that it needs restructuring and 34.25 believe that it is depressing. Regarding coordination among the branches of the same center, 25% believe that coordination does exist, while 35.7% believe that it is non-existent. 40.3% believe that there is coordination sometimes. Regarding redundancy in research, 35.7% believe that it is large, 43.5% believe that the rate is medium, while 20.8% believe it is small. 57.3% expressed that there are more than one piece of equipment in the center that achieve the same purpose, while 49% believe that a great deal of resources are spent to purchase equipment in a redundant manner.
Monopoly is the Reason
In the city of Burj Al-Arab (49 kilometers west of Alexandria), Dr. Abu Shanab wakes up early,, makes sure his children are well before they go to school, has a quick breakfast, carries his satchel of papers and research, and arrives within minutes at the Scientific Research City (formerly Mubarak City). He starts his day as usual in his laboratory, directing his students and checking experiments. He then ascends to his office on the third floor to follow-up on a research project with work teams in more than one country, including Pakistan, India Korea and USA.
Dr. Abu Shanab, who has two Master’s degrees one PhD, and owns several international patents, expresses deep sorrow for the phenomenon of wasting resources by repetition of equipment in Egypt. “Our laboratories are much better than those in European countries I visited, but priority there is given to the core of work and use of equipment, rather than to repetition in their numbers.”
Dr. Abu Shanab attributes the repetition in equipment and the weakness of scientific achievement to “monopoly by researchers and centers of equipment and laboratories.” He recalls how “my research supervisor in the US used to direct me to equipment, whether at universities or research centers. Both were within reach.” He also emphasizes that “the same mechanism can be implemented here.”
Randomness of Management
The experiences of current and former researchers as well as officials show one phenomenon: Redundancy. In a fancy office, located in a rundown and neglected building housing the largest research center in the Middle East, Dr. Hani Al-Nather, the former director of the National Center for Research, says: “Nobody manages the centre”. “It runs on its own momentum, randomly. The evidence is that the centre is run by a ministry of state and no allocations in the budget. This reflects the state’s limited belief in science.”
Al-Nather went on to paint the gloomy picture of the reality of scientific research in Egypt. He “Research centers in Egypt are dispersed over various ministries, with no coordination or integration, except in rare cases. The evidence is that we find a research project at the Agricultural Research Center which has also been carried out by the National Research Center. We also find a piece of equipment worth 6 million Pounds (Vimto Second Laser) bought by the National Research Center, despite the fact that a counterpart exists in another research center at another ministry (Agricultural Research Center). Hence, millions are wasted as a result of the absence of coordination.”
Dr. Ayman Al-Dasouqi, director of the Remote Sensing Agency, had worked at the Electronics Research Institute and at the Informatics Research Institute director, all of which are affiliated to the Ministry of Scientific Research. He says that when a new center is established, other centers are not taken into consideration as far as their functions are concerned, addressing requirements or preventing redundancy. Al-Dasouqi provides an example of duality with a list between the Electronics Institute and the Informatics Institute, which wastes the scientific research budget. This redundancy is devouring funding.
Dispersion of Departments within the Same Ministry
The question that occupied my mind during this investigation was: where does the redundancy come from?
In his simple office at the Agricultural Research Center, Dr. Mohammad Eid Abdul-Majid emphasizes “the lack of coordination from top to bottom.” Dr. Abdul Majid, who took over project management at the center two months ago, believes that projects are many and numerous, as are the sources of their financing. But “the effectiveness of these sources is wasted for three reasons: redundancy of projects, lack of a party to specify the importance or lack thereof of the project, and failure of the Ministry of International Cooperation in following up on projects funded due to the numerous departments within the Ministry.”
As a result of this duality, a researcher receives funding for a project through one of the ministry departments, before someone else comes to obtain funding for the same project through another department, and a third obtains funding from another department.
The European Union has complained from this practice. As an example, a researcher obtained funding for a project to produce virus-free seedlings for 6 million Egyptian pounds from Italy. He also obtained 980,000 Egyptian pounds from the European Union for the same project. The project for improving Levant Corn received funding from the European Union for 900,000 Egyptian pounds, while another project for improving Levant Corn received funding for 4 million Egyptian pounds from France.
Dr Abdul-Majid believes that the problem is not due to lack of funding, but to the absence of research management and those overseeing it, who are not necessarily scientists graduate.
What is Spent is Ten Times what is Declared
The budget for scientific research in Egypt comes from the pockets of its citizens, and represents 0.03% of the state budget, or about 506.3 million Egyptian pounds in 2011 (about $85.92 million). In addition, there are tens of foreign funding sources that are not mentioned in the budget. The value of grants and gifts amounts to 10.973 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.844 billion), including research projects and scientific cooperation. Hence, Dr. Abdul-Majid emphasizes that what is repeated by some people about the poor scientific research budget is “simply mere deception on one hand, and an attempt by some researchers to pressure the government to increase allocations for scientific research on the other.”
What is available is ten times more than what is allocated.” He demands that researchers be held accountable for what is spent, before they demand increasing expenditure.”
Swimming against the Tide
Dr. Ashraf Sha’lan, the Director of the National Research Center admits the problem of redundancy in equipment and the culture of operating them.
When a researcher receives a piece of equipment, he considers it more of personal property. These practices lead to waste and to the erosion of the scientific research budget over buying expensive equipment and performing redundant research.
At the Ministry of Scientific Research, and amid the noise of sit-ins by different groups and social classes demanding jobs, we met Dr. Majed Al-Sharbini, Director of the Scientific Research Academy, established in 1972 as the national agency responsible for science and technology in Egypt. Dr. Al-Sharbini does not deny assertions by senior researchers of the absence of coordination and multiple points of reference. He admits that redundancy has existed for a long time because each location operates separately. It reached a stage whereby the same type of equipment exists in each of two adjacent laboratories. He also emphasized that redundancy exists at the level of large projects and equipment. He gives the examples of Al-Dokki area, where one can find electron microscopes everywhere. But they work 10% of the time. The reason is that each center and institute has a separate budget. However, he argues that the Ministry cannot interfere in the work of research institutes by imposing a specific system, because the mission of the ministry is restricted to coordinating among scientific research centers and institutes.
This, he says, calls for reviewing the functions of the Ministry of Scientific Research and the limits of its jurisdiction over research institutes.
It is evident that nobody has paid any attention over tens of years to this problem, which led to a severe recession in the field of scientific research, despite the availability of capabilities in financing and human resources. The absence of coordination and proper management of resources led to a regression of projects whose researchers succeeded in securing more than one resource of funding them, let alone transferring many of these projects to a means for obtaining job promotions.
According to scientific researchers interviewed by this reporter, the solution, as is done in advanced countries, is locating all research institutes within a system managed by one party, so that scientific research is transferred to a national project with long-term objectives in line with a clear business plan.
The investigation was sponsored by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) under the supervision of coach Yehia Ghanem.