Thinking big — and expensive — in the Saudi desert
Saudi Arabia's new flagship university is hoping to attract and retain scientists with generous funding and luxury living conditions. But critics are concerned that its corporate mentality may hinder research.
The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which opened last month (see Saudi science powerhouse opens its doors), aims to rival the California Institute of Technology in both size and prestige.
"We want people with big ideas and big ambitions. Timid people need not apply," says KAUST president Chon Fong Shih.
To keep the scientists flocking to its doors, KAUST promises luxury both in and outside the laboratory, with full professors receiving US$800,000 a year.
KAUST's novel management structure is also appealing. Rather than being enclosed in departments, faculty members are placed in one of three interdisciplinary divisions to encourage multidisciplinary approaches.
"It's the way you'd want to do it if you could start a university from scratch," says Omar Ghattas, a computational geophysicist at the US-based University of Texas, Austin, who has helped KAUST recruit faculty.
But some scientists are concerned about the university's motives. J. Frasier Stoddart, a chemist at US-based Northwestern University and recipient of the (Saudi) King Faisal Prize in 2007, is concerned that KAUST may be attracting talent for the wrong reasons. "Money doesn't buy everything," he says.
Another critic is radar remote sensing professor Fawwaz Ulaby, KAUST'S founding senior academic administrator, who left suddenly in the spring, citing numerous problems.
It is hoped that KAUST will encourage other Saudi universities to improve their standards and make the Middle East a "major player" in science and technology.