Last year’s Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt’s first free presidential election made headlines around the world. There have been differing perspectives on what a Muslim Brotherhood victory might mean for science. For example, it was recently reported in Nature that some Egyptian scientists welcomed the election of a President, Mohammed Morsi, with an engineering background, a PhD in materials science and an election promise to increase research spending to 2.5% of their country’s GDP. Previously, however, at least one article in the same journal predicted that religious parties such as the Brotherhood would be likely to restrict academic freedom when they rose to power in the region.

The Royal Society and a number of partners have recently launched a study on science and innovation in Egypt in the aftermath of its remarkable revolution, the research having been conducted as part of a wider project looking at the prospects for science in the Islamic world. Led by Michael Bond, a former senior editor at New Scientist, and co-authored by colleagues at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina (which was itself protected by a human chain of protestors at the beginning of Egypt’s unrest), the report highlights how, in the words of Hassan Azzazy, Professor of Chemistry at the American University in Cairo, “innovation was the power behind the revolution”. When, in the last days of the Mubarak regime in early 2011, mobile phone networks and the internet were shut down, the protestors passed on satellite news broadcast via radio, distributed leaflets to keep the flow of information going, and poured soft drinks on their faces to shield themselves from the effects of teargas. The report captures the renewed enthusiasm in the early, heady post-revolutionary days, for science and technology, which had stagnated during the Mubarak years, characterised by long-term underinvestment, poor planning, cumbersome bureaucracy, an uninspiring education system and widespread political interference.

In April 2012, this was brought home dramatically at a discussion in Alexandria at which the research team discussed their work and the prospects for science and technology after the revolution. The sense of new-found freedom – and anger at the previous regime – was palpable, as questioners fought over the microphone to ask a junior science minister on the panel why he had survived the transition, and what he would do to improve their job prospects. Ehsan Masood, editor of Research Fortnight, an expert on science in the Islamic world and chair of the discussion, summarised the event well in a recent column in Nature.

Discussions on the prospects for science and technology, Alexandria, April 2012

As the report argues, Egypt’s revolution presents a major opportunity to revive its science and technology and put research and innovation at the forefront of economic and technological development. The country has a number of advantages in its favour, including a large and growing pool of young talent, many of whom provided the impetus behind the revolution; a powerful and active diaspora around the world; a critical role in linking research in the Middle East and North Africa; an attractiveness to foreign investors relative to its North African, and some Middle Eastern neighbours; national strengths such as ICT and maths; and natural renewable resources such as solar and wind energy. In order to realise its potential, a number of challenges need to be overcome, including the stagnation of science and technology under Mubarak described above, characterised by a dearth of research funding and a rigid academic culture, along with a relative lack of private sector R&D and graduates with business skills. The report calls for the development of a national research policy, an upgrade of the education system, an overhaul of the rigidly hierarchical academic culture that restricts mobility and discourages innovation, more incentives to encourage businesses to invest in R&D, and the promotion of awareness relating to environmental sustainability.

So far, to paraphrase Zhou Enlai, it is arguably too early to assess the long term impact of Egypt’s revolution on science and technology. On the one hand, Egypt’s new constitution, while endorsed by voters, has triggered mass protests, and it has also been reported to have disappointed scientists who were consulted on its development, despite it for the first time enshrining funding for science as the responsibility of the state. On the other, there are those who have argued, as Masood has (albeit before the recent constitutional crisis), that so far there are no signs that some of the worst fears of scientists and academics of the new regime – namely that international scientific cooperation would be hindered, or that freedom of enquiry would be curtailed – have yet been realised.

However, these are still early days. We will continue to monitor further developments there with interest, and we hope that the report and its findings will be of use to Egypt’s scientists and policymakers as they embark on the daunting challenge of realising their country’s scientific potential in the face of a number of economic, environmental and geopolitical challenges.