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By NEF Fellow Dr. Ghada Bassioni 

The motivation to write on the topic of the Closing Panel Discussion of the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting in 2014 “Science to the benefit of Mankind” [1] resulted from the concern with recent changes to the research funding structure in many countries away from basic (i.e. blue sky, curiosity driven) research towards applied (i.e. needs driven, industry and application oriented programs) research.

While in an evolving world implementation and applied science is becoming increasingly important, basic research must continue to be valued and supported [2].

 Over the past decades there have been rising concerns for these funding structural changes in different countries that encourage an open discussion among young scientists from all over the world.

As national and international financial resources have become defined, there has been a global trend to mainly support implementation oriented science with direct links to the industry on one hand and to neglect basic research on the other. Nowadays, it is almost obligatory to identify potential end users within grants’ applications of scientific research proposals. It has become harder to obtain funding for fundamental science projects. These trends have direct impact on young researchers who need to refrain from choosing basic science as their main research focus in order to increase their chances to develop an independent scientific career.

In general, scientists believe that research should contribute to the benefit of mankind and that it should make a difference. It is evident that scientists have contributed excessively to the progress the world has achieved through their various technological inventions and discoveries. Then how should governments decide the balance between hard-nosed research that will certainly have a practical impact and speculative research that may never pay off?

Since the establishment of the Advisory Committee on the Application of Science and Technology to Development by the United Nations in 1964, the eight selected problems to be tackled that impede social and economic problems didn’t change much, especially the provision of adequate food supplies, the improvement of health and education [3].

In Egypt, and as in many other African countries, scientists vary in their choice between basic and applied research. It is mostly the opportunity provided whether stepping into the supervisors’ shoes or whether it is a fellowship abroad that can either drive a researcher to either direction. At an early career stage Egyptian scientists are rather flexible. It is only at a later stage, mostly after obtaining a Ph.D., that scientists become more focused. The Egyptian government provides support mostly through its main funding body, the Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF) [4].  The STDF has been found in 2007 as a governmental entity that helps building capacities in terms of infrastructure and human resources with an annual budget of $100 million. It is under the umbrella of the Egyptian Ministry of Scientific Research and is therefore considered as the focal point to solve national challenges from an R&D perspective. The STDF has several programs that particularly tackle challenges associated with emerging technologies. The STDF is also keen to sponsor events like workshops, conferences and training sessions that particularly focus on collaboration between academia and industry. Programs that deal with basic research exist yet are of lower budget. About 30% of the annual research budget of STDF goes to fundamental research. It is clear from these statistics that the appeal to demand driven research might be better heard in developing countries as it tackles national challenges that have certain priority over basic research. Scientists living in isolated islands who practice “science for fun” might have fewer chances to receive financial support than those who are aware of societal needs.

So should scientists in developing counties in general and in Africa in particular focus on practical problems and leave the blue-sky research to others? The interplay between a solution to a particular application problem and the underlying theory is critical to how science progresses.

While basic research can be funded within an implementation oriented project, collaboration with other groups from developed countries is certainly an option. International cooperation is based on the idea that high income countries should be supporters rather than prime movers; this was considered to be a meaningful basis for aid only if developing countries possess their own primary scientific resources [5]. How fruitful collaboration with the developed world can be has been questioned in early years, especially with increasing “scientific colonialism”. Many young scientists from Egypt and other African countries prefer joining an established research body in a developed country rather than struggling through their own way in their home countries. Over the intervening years “brain drain” from developing countries has been tackled by calling the developing world “a permanent desert for research” [6]. The quest to invest more in young scientists who are motivated and who can have an impact in their countries is a plea to encourage reintegration on a long term basis. But is it certain that “Brain Drain” will leave developing economies in a poverty trap?

So is a balance possible between the “brain drain” phenomenon and the urge for fundamental science in the developing world? Should young scientists aim for glocalization (global-local) of science? Globally accessible yet locally present? At present, north-south, inter- and/or multi-disciplinary collaborations seem to be the only solution that is fast and that would guarantee success. On a long-term basis, it is definitely the improvement of infrastructure and funding bodies in the developing world that would support young scientists and basic research there.

References:

[1] Barré-Sinoussi F, Schmidt B P. 2014 Aug 19. Video – Panel Discussion (2014) – Closing Panel Discussion: Science for the Benefit of Mankind; Panelists Barré-Sinoussi, Bassioni, Mgone, Schmidt, Schütte <http://www.mediatheque.lindau-nobel.org/videos/33787/2014-panel-discussion-science-for-the-benefit>. Accessed 2014 Oct 11.

[2] Global young Academy Working Group on the Importance on Fundamental Research  WG-FUN http://globalyoungacademy.net/activities/importance-of-fundamental-research, Accessed 2015 Dec 03.

[3] Nature, Vol. 5000 August 28, 1965, pp 897-899.

[4] Science and Technology Development Fund Homepage: www.stdf.org.eg, Accessed 2016 Jan 06.

[5] Nature, Vol. 230 March 12, 1971, pp 87-90.

[6] Nature, Vol. 280, July 26, 1979, pp 262-263.

Ghada Bassioni received her Ph.D. degree from the Technische Universität München (TUM), Germany. She is currently an Associate Professor and the Head of the Chemistry Division at the Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt and works jointly at the Science and Technology Development Fund, Egyptian Ministry of Scientific Research. She is a member of the Egyptian National Committee for Pure and Applied Chemistry. She has been recognized with several national, regional and international awards and has been selected as an academic visitor and a panelist at the Nobel Laureates meeting in Lindau, Germany in 2012 and 2014, respectively. She was the women’s representative from 2005-2007 at the TUM, the Chair of the Women’s Initiative at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Abu Dhabi Section 2009-2011 and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Global Young Academy since 2013 and lead of the Women in Science working group.