The Tunisian research in IT is rather small. Altogether the number of researchers can be estimated at 300 including teaching staff and PhD students. This is about one fourth of the staff of a large research institute like INRIA in France with 500 full time researchers and 600 students! However, the quality of research is at the level of European standards. Most of the Tunisian researchers have been trained abroad, in the best European or American laboratories and they maintain good relationships with these laboratories.
The main drawback of this situation is a wide variety in the themes of interest and a lack of focusing in the scientific orientations of the laboratories. For example, at least 5 different institutions, namely ENIT, ENSI, IRSIT, CERT and ESPTT are working on networks and telecommunications. In the Tunisian context, one could have expected that arabisation benefits from a lot of efforts and in fact there is no doubt that Tunisian research is at the best international level in this field but the theme is dealt with almost everywhere.
In spite of an overall relatively good situation, the Tunisian research suffers from some long lasting difficulties which hamper the full realisation of its potential:
As the importance of R&D and the information technologies is fully recognised in Tunisia, there is little doubt that these issues will be dealt with in the near future. In particular, a scheme for helping PhD students to prepare their thesis in the country and some mechanisms for inciting the researchers to work more closely in networks involving industry whenever possible or to go abroad for thematic conversion would be most useful.
International co-operation could also play a significant role in this respect. The links with the international scientific community (specially with France thanks to the help of the French government) are already strong and this should facilitate a broader involvement in the EC R&D programmes. Up to now, the Tunisian participation in the Framework Programme has been very small but it should increase in near future, in particular since the next INCO call for IT will be focused on the Mediterranean region.
Moreover, the emphasis on the strengthening of the co-operation between Europe and the Mediterranean countries resulting from the Euro-Mediterranean conference held in Barcelona in November 1995 should provide new opportunities. The MEDA programme which was adopted then for a total of 4 685 MECU aims to support the reform of economic and social structures of the Mediterranean countries. Among the measures considered in this programme are the development of the telecommunication infrastructure and the improvement of human resources and of the potential of scientific and technical research.
This could be a key element in eliminating some of the obstacles to the development of R&D in Tunisia and to allow it to contribute more efficiently to the solution of some of the main issues that the country will have to face in the coming years, namely:
Setting up a special inter-ministerial task force in order to define an action plan in these fields and to follow its execution could be useful. The action of this task force could be supplemented by the establishment of an advisory working group made of experts coming from various horizons: industry and services, social sciences and IT researchers, content producers, networktelecom operatorsopetrators... It would be in charge of analysing the major societal and economic issues raised by the transition towards the information society in Tunisia and of identifying the technologiy needs and the markets for tomorrow.
In conclusion, it should be emphasised that, in spite of all its difficulties, the Tunisian research disposes of enough strength and stamina to contribute to the development of its country and that, in the short run, it could play a significant role in the European research programmes.