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See Inside February 2008

Arabian Brainpower

Can a $10-billion university restore science to the Islamic world?

On the shores of the Red Sea, near a small fishing village called Thuwal, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is launching a university with the ambition of making it a world leader in science and technology. Not only will the school—called King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)—possess one of the 10 largest university endowments in the world, it will also allow women and men to study side by side. The greatest challenge that the potentially revolutionary school now faces is attracting faculty and students.

Science once flourished in the Islamic world, a legacy seen today in the West with the use of Arabic numerals and words such as “algebra.” After the golden age of Islam ended with the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, this momentum vanished. “It’s recognized in several [United Nations] reports that the Arab and Muslim world now lags behind in science,” says Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, interim provost for KAUST. Such an assessment includes, for instance, the amount of money expended on research relative to the size of a country’s economy and the total number of research papers published and patents registered.

To initiate world-class research in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is personally granting KAUST an endowment of $10 billion or more—at least as much as that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which currently ranks among the top half a dozen university endowments in the U.S. The graduate-level university will be completely independent of Saudi Arabia’s government, granting students and faculty academic freedom seen in universities worldwide—and a freedom unprecedented in the kingdom. “It will not experience the interference a typical government-run university may,” Al-Khowaiter insists.

KAUST will enjoy the legal autonomy that is seen in enclaves elsewhere in Saudi Arabia for foreign oil workers—women will be allowed to drive, for instance, and the religious police will be barred from the premises. Although Al-Khowaiter expects some resistance to such freedoms from the rest of the kingdom, he believes that “if we can show that we are able to benefit society, I think that kind of resistance will be overcome. If we do not show benefits, then resistance will have the effect of curtailing research.”

The nascent university’s biggest challenge may be drawing top-rated talent to a geographically isolated university with no track record. As enticement, KAUST will offer new labs with the best equipment and award grants to scientists. “Researchers won’t spend 50 percent of their time chasing after funding,” Al-Khowaiter says.

KAUST will also endeavor to overcome any isolation researchers might feel by keeping them linked with the rest of the world—allowing scientists to maintain appointments at other universities, for instance, and paying for travel to any meeting across the globe. In addition, KAUST will maintain a presence worldwide by collaborating with leading institutions, such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and funding scientists at other universities with up to $1 billion in grants over a period of 10 years.

To attract students, the university will initially offer full scholarships, not only to all graduate students but also to overseas juniors and seniors to cover the remaining tuition at their current institutions in return for commitments to enroll at KAUST. The point is “to have a stream of students present when the university opens,” Al-Khowaiter states. KAUST will give out these scholarships for at least its first 10 years.

Unusually, instead of organizing research around the single-discipline departments seen in most universities, KAUST will rely on interdisciplinary centers devoted to specific challenges, including energy research, water availability and sustainable development. “Such centers have been very successful worldwide in attracting scientists to work on big problems that require teams with many different disciplines,” Al-Khowaiter says. In the end, KAUST is aiming for a student population made up of roughly 40 percent from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Gulf region, 30 percent from countries stretching between Egypt and India, and 30 percent from the rest of the world.

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