EGYPT: Study sounds alarm over science future

A growing trend among Egyptian students to shun science in favour of the humanities is placing the scientific future of the country of 80 million people in peril, according to a recent study. Research and development specialist numbers and journal publication outputs are dropping.

"Increasing numbers of secondary school students major in literary subjects and avoid scientific subjects for fear that they might not obtain high scores to attend prestigious faculties if they majored in science," said the study titled The Future of Science and Mathemtics Education in Egypt.

Conducted by Sahar Abdel Gayed, a researcher at the Future Studies Centre of the Egyptian government, the study cited an "exodus" of students to humanities faculties in Egypt since 2000. "This trend has produced a set of negative results, which augur ill for the future of scientific research in Egypt," Abdel Gayed warned.

According to her, the number of research and development specialists has dropped to 493 per million in Egypt, compared to 7,992 per million in Finland, 2,434 per million in South Korea and 1,012 per million in Tunisia, another North African Arab country.

Another ominous indicator is the fact that the number of patents in Egypt has dropped to one patent per citizen against 857 patents per citizen in Japan, 16 per citizen in China and eight per citizen in Iran.

Academic conditions unfavourable to the sciences had impacted negatively on the volume of Egyptian scientific research papers in published in world journals. "Egypt published a humble 1,548 research papers in 2002, compared to 200,000 by US researchers and 50,000 by Japanese researchers," added Abdel Gayed.

In her view, the problem is mainly due to the way science and mathematics are taught in Egyptian schools. "When science and maths teachers show interest in these subjects, their interest becomes infectious to their students," she noted, urging that science and math be "humanised".

"This means that more attention [in Egypt] should be shown to the life applications of science and maths so that their teaching will be significant in the classroom," she explained.

Abdel Gayed lamented that in Egypt learning science was mainly aimed at passing examinations. "If we succeed in radically changing the course of science education in Egypt, the perception of the teacher of his job will change, thereby doing a good job that would impresses students."

Ali Habeesh, chair of the Scientific Professions Association, a non-governmental union, put the blame on science curricula and teachers.

"I have aPhD degree in science. But I do not like physics and maths, though they are the basis of science, and that is because of the physics and maths teachers at my secondary school," he told the semi-official newspaper Al Akhbar recently.

Another reason in his opinion was the tight job market in Egypt. "Vacancies available in the local job market are those based on having a good command of foreign languages and computer literacy. This situation discourages students from attending science faculties where studies need a lot of effort," he said.

"A medical professional, for example, earns very little compared to an employee at a multinational company."