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Why Egypt's Brightest Scientific Minds Move Abroad

Students demonstrating for education reform at Ain Shams University
Students demonstrating for education reform at Ain Shams University
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — In February 2014, the Egyptian military announced that it had found a cure for AIDS and hepatitis. This supposed miracle of medical technology was developed by the Armed Forces' Engineering Authority, which claims to use electromagnetic waves to eradicate the viruses in infected blood. Known as the Complete Cure, or CC for short, the device soon became nicknamed the "kofta machine" after its inventor, Major General Ibrahim Abdel Aty, said it worked by "sucking AIDS out of patients, turning it into kofta and then giving it back to the patients to eat."

The principles behind the device were never revealed in a peer-reviewed journal, but it was nonetheless unveiled with much fanfare and backed by the likes of former interim President Adly Mansour and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who at the time was head of the Armed Forces. Despite a wave of skepticism from scientists around the world, proponents of the technology held their ground, announcing that treatment would be available in select hospitals beginning in July 2014.

That deadline was quietly pushed back until the end of the year, and its "inventor" has gone quiet. But the ruling regime has yet to disavow the technology — with the exception of Essam Heggy, Mansour's scientific advisor, who condemned the project from the beginning.

With such highly unscientific thinking holding sway in the highest echelons of power, how well can serious scientific researchers fare in Egypt?

Islam Hussein, an Egyptian virologist currently conducting post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has personally discoverd the cost for those who try to speak out for empiricism and rational thinking.

After learning about the Complete Cure device and a companion detection device called C-Fast, which is based on similarly flawed concepts, Hussein produced two videos in which he thoroughly debunked the inconsistencies and pseudoscience behind the so-called medical breakthroughs.

Hussein was very careful to stick purely to science, avoiding any discussion of the politics behind the invention. He is, he insists, a scientist, not a politician.

"When we evaluate, we look only at the science," he says. "We have been trained as scientists to completely ignore who is doing it. There are no military ranks in science. What matters at the end of the day is the product you are giving to people."

Despite this apolitical approach, Hussein was attacked in social and broadcast media, as was Essam Heggy before him.

No place for scientists

Despite this desire to participate in Egypt's public dialogue, Hussein, like many of Egypt's brightest scientific minds, felt he had no choice but to leave Egypt to pursue his research. It's a decision he likens to amputating a gangrenous limb.

"You live abroad as somebody who lost an arm," he says. "It's like you are paying the price out of your body. It's something very, very vital to you, but in order to keep going, to stay alive, you have to give it up. We are still attached to our home countries. I would say that physically I live outside Egypt, but emotionally or psychologically, or all the other aspects of my life, I've left at home."

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Robot greetings at MIT. Photo: Inha Leex Hale

After completing his master's degree at Zagazig University in 2003, Hussein went abroad, first to Cambridge for his PhD, and now to MIT.

"I did not foresee an environment for doing what I wanted to do, for many obvious reasons: lack of funding, the whole set up that you need to do science in Egypt was lacking at that time and I think, unfortunately, it still is lacking."

It is simply not possible to do advanced research without proper facilities, he explains. "If you have the skills, but you don't have the tools, forget it, you won't be able to do it," he says.

Hussein adds that he had some excellent teachers, but that his university simply lacked the resources for him to carry out his research. "We had a lab. I mean, a place that was referred to as a lab, he says. "It had very little facilities and little equipment. The total budget that we had in my department for both undergrad and post-grad was 2,000 Egyptian pounds per year ($280). That's it."

By contrast, the cheapest of the reagents that Hussein uses on a daily basis at MIT costs $50.

No budgets, poor rankings

Ahmed al-Droubi, a biology graduate turned environmental activist, says the situation persists to this day. "I've seen university departments, research departments, work with a five-figure annual research budget for 2,000 PhD students, and double that number of master's students," he says.

"That's why you find out that most marine biologists in Egypt are fish biologists. Not fisheries. Fish. Because their study usually comprises going to the fish market and buying fish, cutting it up, and then cooking it for lunch. Because they don't have the money to go diving, get a boat, a research vessel and go out, or get proper sampling done in their labs. There is no other possibility."

International institutions paint a similarly grim picture. In the 2014-15 edition of the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness report, Egypt ranked 135 out of 144 countries worldwide for the quality of scientific research institutions, and 136 for overall quality of higher education in math and science. The country ranked well for the availability of scientists and engineers, at number 40, but only 132 in capacity for innovation.

[rebelmouse-image 27087779 alt="""" original_size="639x418" expand=1]

Taking the long view in Cairo. Photo: Evelyn Hill

The situation has not always been this bad, says geoarcheologist Fekri Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Scientific Academy who has taught in universities across Europe and the United States and now serves as director of the Cultural Heritage Program at the French University in Egypt.

As a student in the early 1960s, when he began studying biology and chemistry at Ain Shams University, he had better resources than students do today. He also had the support of young and enthusiastic professors who had returned to Egypt after receiving government scholarships to study around the world.

"Even though Egypt was still poor, I think it was a lot different than it is now," he says. "The numbers of students were smaller, and the university staff were far better qualified than many of the professors we have now. The labs were still modest, but at least you had people who were motivated and who were educated."

In the decades that followed, the quality of education deteriorated, Hassan says. "I think the problem began by expanding the numbers of students without corresponding expenditure on laboratories, etc., which degrades the quality of the university," he says. "The university has to be a place where you spend a lot on the students, so they can have a good library, they can have good facilities, good labs and so on."

This underfunding, he says, was accompanied by changing attitudes as the government expanded its control over the industry. "The role of the university, as far as the country is concerned, is superfluous because they are not tied to industry or agriculture or applied works."

Lack of a meritocracy

This, he says, was exacerbated by a system in which graduates felt entitled to jobs in the country's mushrooming bureaucracy, regardless of their performance. "The approach then was that people were also more or less guaranteed jobs when they graduated, and that killed some of the independence and entrepreneurial spirit."

This apathy also bled into the university system itself. "Once you enroll and get a PhD, you are automatically assistant professor and you do a few things. So the quality control is lacking, and you end up with nepotism and what have you."

Reversing this decline would take a concerted effort at both the university and government levels, he says, both to provide better facilities and to increase academic standards.

Hussein, the MIT virologist, makes a similar point. "Research is a combination of different things: One of them is a political decision. It comes with money, and it comes with support."

The students he teaches in Egypt have as much raw potential as those he has encountered anywhere in the world, Hassan says. "The students I have are among the best I've ever seen, in England and in America, in terms of enthusiasm, dedication and willingness to engage in studies."

They have the potential to help Egypt lead the world in critical fields like alternative energy and water management, reduce the country's dependence on imported technologies, and play a key role in shaping public discourse in Egypt, he says. Now they just need an education system that will support them.

The commitment in the 2014 constitution to increase spending on education to 4% of GDP and scientific research to 1% of GDP is a step in the right direction, both say.

"As soon as it gets applied, it will definitely help things improve," Hussein says. "But as long as they are words on a piece of paper ... you know."

For his part, Hassan says the constitution is a good start. "But it's not just an increase in the amount of budget, it's on who and how it is spent."

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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