EGYPT: Researchers up in arms

Hassan Mahmoud, a researcher at a state-run centre, wonders if Egypt's government is really serious about boosting national development through scientific research: "Who can believe that a professor at a research centre earns no more than LE3,800 (US$680) a month?" he said. "How can he support his family with this humble sum of money and still do a good job?" Mahmoud is among the 6,000 professors on the teaching staff at 12 state-run research centres who are angry that a government plan to raise academic salaries excludes them.

Late last year, the government resolved a dispute with lecturers at public universities over wages after the academics, citing poor financial status, went on strike for the first time.

After a recent crisis meeting, researchers at state-run institutes threatened open strikes and unspecified "escalatory" action if the government did not meet their demand to be treated on an equal footing with university lecturers. They said they would go to court to force the government to award them the pay rise already offered to university academics.

"It is strange that instructors at research centres are denied the rise already cashed to their counterparts in universities," said Sabri el-Negumi, Chair of the Research Centres' Club, an independent union. "What adds to our disappointment is that this rise, known as a quality performance bonus, was agreed during a meeting with the Prime Minister on the basis that the bonus be granted to all professors without discrimination in universities and research centres alike," el-Negumi told University World News.

He cited a republican decree issued in the 1980s providing for equal treatment, in terms of finances and perks, of academics in research centres and universities. Both are overseen by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research but researchers have accused the ministry of "turning a blind eye" to their deteriorating financial situation.

In recent years Egypt, where around 40% of an 80-million population are believed to live below the poverty line, has seen a series of protests over wages. Last April, three people were killed in clashes with police in the industrial delta city of Al Mahla al Kubra over price increases and poor wages.

Officials at the ministry estimate the new increases in researchers' wages will cost the public treasury around LE17 million. "Can't the government provide this small sum of money? And why did they [the government] agree to cash this pay rise to university lecturers though they and the researchers are subjected to the same law?" asked el-Negumi.

He added that around 98% of research centre professionals had met all the conditions set by the ministry to be eligible for the quality performance bonus. "They are punctual and work full-time. These are among the required conditions. Should they be punished for being so dedicated?" said el-Negumi.

The government says that state-run research centres are manned by 98,000 researchers but only 48,000 of them are full-timers. Ministry officials have, meanwhile, promised the pay increase will be paid soon from the ministry's budget and attributed the delay to "technical mistakes".

Under the new pay rise, the monthly salary of professors increases by LE2,000 and of assistant professors by LE1,600.

The latest row over wages coincides with reports in the local media that the government plans to replace existing research centres with new ones. "If true, this plan would be a dangerous U-turn," said one top researcher.

Hani el-Nazer, Chair of the state-run National Centre for Research in Cairo, commented: "The list of new centres reportedly to be created includes centres and branches similar to ones already in existence, such as facilities for conducting research related to the genome, nanotechnology, pharmacology, cancer and botany. Why shouldn't the present centres be supported instead of setting up alternative ones and wasting money on them? No official in the existing centres has been consulted on this plan."

El Nazer put the budget of his centre at around LE200 million and said the bulk was spent on wages. "To conduct good scientific research, we need at least LE1 billion annually. To overcome this problem, we have shifted our sights to funding from companies and the business community."

Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Hani Helal said the plan was to set up 'distinction' centres inside universities and research institutions. "We have not thought of cancelling the present centres," Helal told local media. "The envisaged institutes are aimed at introducing major developments to help Egyptian universities compete more vigorously at the world level and to nurture a national economy based on knowledge."

His ministry has earmarked allocations, which he did not specify, for "this ambitious plan". Helal added: "There is no intention at all to cut the budget of the research centres, which increases by 10% every year."

"The state has an action plan for boosting scientific research in the near future, giving priority to research aimed at tackling a shortage of water, energy and wheat. These projects will be financed through a governmental fund for science and technological development. We have other funding sources through cooperation with the European Union, the US and Japan."