Thursday, September 01, 2016

Following Ahmed Zewail's death, Egypt's Science City may be in trouble

by Salman Hameed



Early in August, Egypt lost its Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Ahmed Zewail. He was 70 years old. Apart from his scientific contributions, Zewail was heavily invested in improving the scientific infrastructure of Egypt. For this purpose, he was planning an elite research university within a science city. I was a bit reminded of Pakistan's Nobel prize winner, Abdus Salam, in this regard. He wanted to have a world class physics institute in Pakistan. However, in his case, the government had by then decided that his religious sect was no longer welcome in the country, nor really was any large-scale project spearheaded by him. Salam ended up creating the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and it now bears his name.

Zewail's project, on the other hand, has the full backing of the government - at least on non-monetary matters. In 2011, the project was deemed as a national project for scientific renaissance and was named Zewail City of Science and Technology. The project depends on outside donors, and Zewail's name provided the prestige. With his death, however, the future of the project is in doubt.

Here is a take from Nature in the project, and it highlights its existing and future challenges:
The institute had relied heavily on Zewail’s star name and contacts to attract the support of scientific luminaries and millions of dollars in donations and government loans. It is now running out of money, has not yet raised enough cash to support a planned move to a new campus and will probably have to rely on more state support, say researchers working there. 
“Fundraising has always been a challenge, and I think it is likely to be affected by the loss of Dr Zewail in the short term,” says Sherif El-Khamisy, a molecular biologist at the University of Sheffield, UK, who is also director of Zewail City’s Center for Genomics. “But the logistical support envisaged from the state is expected to override the initial fear or uncertainty.”
But the project is well behind the fundraising already:
Uncertainty has plagued Zewail City since its inception. While working at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Zewail proposed in 1999 to found the university and technology hub near Cairo as a flagship science project, essential for Egypt’s research development. But it was not until 2011 that the institute launched — a delay that Zewail has ascribed to political instability and bureaucracy. 
The young university was quickly plunged into controversy, after Egypt's first not-for-profit private research institution, Nile University — also outside Cairo — argued that it owned some of the buildings gifted to the science city. Nile University ultimately won the legal dispute — although it has allowed researchers from Zewail City to stay on in its buildings until a new campus is complete. 
Zewail City began accepting students in 2013; it currently has more 500 students and 150 academic professors and researchers. The first class of students will graduate next year, many of whom have received scholarships to cover their tuition fees. 
The project’s new campus is expected to be finished in 2019, at a cost of at least US$450 million; a first phase should be complete by July 2017, when many faculty and students are to move there. But Zewail City hasn’t raised enough money to finish even its first phase, says Sherif Fouad, a spokesperson for the institute. 
To pay for scholarships and campus construction, it has almost used up the 700 million Egyptian pounds (around US$80 million) raised from donors; its other funding comes in the form of a 1-billion-Egyptian-pound loan from the ministry of defence, which ultimately must be paid back. A shaky economy and the widely expected devaluation of Egypt’s currency is not helping matters. 
For the time being, it has the support of the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. From the science perspective, a supporting president is a good thing, but his record in terms of stifling decent and democracy has been quite appalling. Lets see how things go:
How the state deals with that intervention could affect whether the institute can maintain the support of scientists whom Zewail sought to attract, says Ibrahim el-Sherbiny, joint director of the institute’s Center for Materials Science. “If they feel the reassurance on the ground, they will remain and attract others because they loved Dr Zewail, and I am sure they would love to support him after his death,” he says. 
Zewail City enjoys an unusual autonomy: unlike other Egyptian state-sponsored institutions, it has been granted a decree that allows the campus to outline its own structure and governance, guaranteeing its independence from the education ministry. Obayya says that he does not expect such autonomy to be affected by closer government intervention. 
At a meeting on 8 August, Zewail City’s board of directors vowed that their pioneer’s “national mission” would carry on. British-Egyptian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub of Imperial College London is widely tipped to take Zewail’s place at the head of the project, says Fouad.
Read the full article here.

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