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Egypt reverses the brain drain

Tuesday December 12, 2006

Linda Nordling

Brain drain is a problem for most developing countries. Lured by better pay and facilities elsewhere, the brightest students take off to seek their fortune, leaving behind only the bill for their education and a higher education system bled dry of young talent.

There have been many attempts to reverse this brain drain, with successes few and far between. But in Egypt a pioneering project is managing to exploit the brain drain, turning it into ?brain gain?.

The site of this discovery is Egypt?s renowned National Research Centre which huddles among the hustle and bustle of central Cairo, and houses the six-month-old Nobel project that gives young researchers who have left the country a chance to return to top-class facilities.

That candidates should have PhDs from foreign universities was a founding criterion when populating 10 newly renovated laboratories. Promises of top-class equipment and help in reducing red tape lured promising postdocs from Germany, Spain, the US and the UK.

?Of course some Egyptian postdocs were jealous,? says Mahmoud Sakr, coordinator of the project. At 42, he is not much older than the researchers he supervises. In the end, 85 researchers under the age of 35 formed 10 research groups. Some brought research funding with them as part of on-going projects, and all are being encouraged to stay in touch with their contacts abroad.

The research done by the groups is grounded in solving problems involved with the development of the country and the surrounding region. For example, one group is trying to improve the drought- and pest-resilience of the date palm, which thrives in arid places. If successful, this research will not only benefit Egyptians, but people throughout Africa and the Middle East as well.

A second project evaluates the anti-tumour properties of a local plant purported to have therapeutic uses against cancer. A third aims to find a vaccine against the virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu that struck Egypt badly earlier this year, resulting in at least 10 deaths.

Sakr is convinced the Nobel project provides a model that should be considered by other countries faced with the loss of skills.

The Nobel project, which takes young researchers out of the stifling hierarchies of academia and gives them free rein to discover and innovate, seems to be doing just that.


Hoda Baraka, age 23, from Cairo, is studying an MSc in politics of the world economy at the London School of Economics (LSE)

London universities? reputation for academic excellence is what most attracts foreign students to the capital, particularly those pursuing graduate studies. As someone who completed an undergraduate degree at an American university, then did postgraduate studies at the LSE, I can attest to the strengths of the British system.

While the US system exposes students to a wide range of subjects, the British system focuses more on building a solid base for critical thinking. This approach has proved to be more fulfilling for graduate students: in the UK they are assessed more on the strength and eloquence of their arguments, rather than on how much information they have absorbed.

The vibrancy of London life also features highly for most graduate students, and many universities highlight this when attempting to attract overseas students. The exposure to different cultures and mindsets is matched by few universities in other world capitals.


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