Brave new world: Gulf seeks bold science initiatives

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The Gulf States are investing in radical initiatives to strengthen science but results are not guaranteed, reports Waleed Al-Shobakky.

Farouk El-Baz routinely shifts between two views of the Gulf countries. One day the Egyptian-American geologist will be in his Boston office poring over detailed satellite images of the Arabian Peninsula. The next he will be continuing his study from a much closer range, flying to Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to do his geology fieldwork — and to serve as a science adviser.

El-Baz, the director of the US-based Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing, has been advising the Gulf states on science for over three decades, participating in nearly every science and research initiative in the region.

So far, those initiatives have largely failed to bear fruit. "The state of science in this region remains terrible," says El-Baz.

But that could be about to change, as the Gulf States put their petrodollars into new initiatives.

A glaring disparity

Science research initiatives started in Gulf countries with the first oil-profit windfalls in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

Yet comparing the money the Gulf States have racked up over the years with the evolvement of their research and education infrastructure evokes a glaring disparity.

Last June The Economist reported that the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have, combined, earned US$1.5 trillion from oil exports over the period 2002–2006, almost double that of the previous five years.

El-Baz can only lament this situation. "Tens of years and billions of dollars have been laid to waste," he says.

The past few years, however, have witnessed a significant, if not radical, shift.

Multibillion-dollar institutions are now in operation or being established, and experimental projects are being set up to find the long-elusive answer to the question: how best to benefit from outside academia in nurturing home-grown science?

Answering this question has sent the Gulf states down different paths. All seem innovative, but which will be more successful in the long term remains to be seen.

"Not all of these projects will pan out," says El-Baz, whose long experience with the region has taught him to restrain his expectations. "But it is refreshing to see this new enthusiasm for science in the region."

The experimenting kingdom

After several unsuccessful attempts in the 1970s to bring scientists into the kingdom, Saudi Arabia is experimenting with an unorthodox model.

The country is looking at supporting foreign researchers at their home institutions worldwide through the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level university — and Saudi Arabia’s first co-educational institution — due to open on the shores of the Red Sea in 2009.

KAUST will support outside graduate students, post doctoral fellows and professors at their home universities through scholarships and award programmes, as well as having a resident student body and faculty that will number 10,000 when the university is in full operation.

The catch is that the grants will only go, at least initially, to research areas of interest to Saudi Arabia. These include carbon capture and hydrogen-rich fuels, water desalination, biotechnology for food, nutrition and public health, and applied mathematics and computational science.

In his speech at the university’s groundbreaking ceremony last October, Nadhmi Al-Nasr, interim president of KAUST, described the approach as a "novel operational model".

And novel it is, but risky too.

The research grants that KAUST awards impose almost no obligations on the recipient researchers. In return for grants of up to US$5 million over three years, they need only to visit the kingdom twice annually, for workshops and to update the funders on progress.

The hope is that this programme will facilitate rapid knowledge transfer into the kingdom. But results do not seem guaranteed.

KAUST is currently in cooperation talks with Carnegie Mellon University

Credit: KAUST

"It is undeniably a risky strategy. And it is really hard to say whether this is a brilliant idea or a crazy idea." says Peter Lee, head of computer science at the US-based Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the universities KAUST is in cooperation talks with.

Lee, who attended the first meeting between KAUST and Carnegie Mellon last spring, adds that whether the KAUST strategy works will depend on two factors: who participates in the programme in the early years, and "how honestly researchers around the world will help KAUST grow their university".

The idea of partnering with Saudi Arabia has drawn doubts from colleagues at CMU, says Lee. "The image of Saudi Arabia is extremely negative, especially in the United States," he says. "Whether it is justified is not the point. The point is that this negative image exists. And this is going to be another difficulty for KAUST to surmount."

Evolving models

Saudi Arabia’s strategy may be risky, but it appears to be devised essentially as a way around the weaknesses of Qatar’s.

Qatar’s answer to boosting homegrown science is to invite outside institutions in. Starting in 1997, the country began to invite high-profile US universities to set up branch campuses of one or more of their schools at the Education City campus in Doha. Many of these invitations were initially met with rejection.

Cornell University, based in Ithaca, New York, initially declined the Qatari invitation. During talks in 1999, its president is reported to have said, "Cornell is Cornell because there is only one."

But not anymore: another branch of Cornell’s medical college now resides under the sunny skies of Doha, thousands of miles away from the US campus.

Qatar’s perseverance, success in striking a partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University and improved financial packages for potential academic partners all helped convince the prized Cornell.

"Once we signed up Cornell in 2002, it became easier to bring in Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M and Georgetown universities over the following years," says Fathy Saoud, the lead negotiator, and new president of the Qatar Foundation, the institution leading Qatar’s science and education initiatives.

The use of branch campuses to educate Qatari citizens and other nationals from the larger Middle East may be straightforward. But the branch-campus model is not perfect — not every university is prepared to open a branch campus in countries that are just starting to dabble with science.

Qatar use branch campuses
to educate Qatari citizens
and other nations from the
Middle East

Credit: Weill Cornell
Medical College

Another limitation of the branch-campus model is that top researchers may prefer to stay at their home campuses rather than leap to the untried Doha. "There is always the chance that branch campuses will only get second-rate scientists or ones who are not in demand back home," says Tidu Maini, chairman of the Qatar Science and Technology Park.

Qatar seems to be aware of the limitations of its own model. In April 2006, the Qatar Foundation initiated the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), which has just started a collaborative research programme that aims to bring together researchers from outside and within Qatar.

The programme, the National Priorities Research Program, promises to fully fund approved research proposals from anywhere in the world. But two conditions must be met: at least one Qatari researcher is involved and 50 per cent of the work is done in Qatar.

"One of the goals of this programme is to raise Qatar’s profile as a place where science is appreciated and supported," says Abdul Sattar Al-Taie, QNRF’s director.

Qatar’s policy of putting money into research projects is in stark contrast to that of nearby Dubai, one of the seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In 2003, TECOM, Dubai’s free zone authority, established Dubai Knowledge Village. The village is now home to 19 universities from the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, India and Pakistan.

But while Qatar invites and fully supports its handpicked partners, Dubai’s Knowledge Village is open to all interested institutions from the world over. These universities are financially independent, operating more or less as entrepreneurial entities on Dubai’s soil.

An opening for latecomers

The Gulf states’ eagerness to collaborate on research comes at a time when the scientific wherewithal is in place to achieve it.

Dubai Knowledge Village

Credit: Flickr/cityh

"Technologies and equipment used in scientific research are much more standardised and transferrable today than ever before," says Javaid Sheikh, research dean at Cornell University’s medical college in Doha.

State-of-the-art equipment needed for, say, genomic studies, can be bought and researchers can conduct exactly the same type of research in Doha as in New York. "You could not have done that even ten years ago."

"So you have a realistic chance, to transfer technology very quickly, and jumpstart something in this region," says Sheikh.

But if the science initiatives in the region are made possible largely because of the oil proceeds, what will happen if oil prices nosedive like they did in the mid-1980s? That in fact is unlikely, at least not any time soon.

"This time around the demand for oil is led by China and India," says Adhip Chaudhuri, economics professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. He points out that not only are these countries growing fast, but also steadily, unlike the United States’ cyclical growth of booms and recessions. "That creates a consistent demand for oil."

And good prospects for oil mean that science projects in the region have good prospects too.

This gives El-Baz hope. "At least they are trying; and that is a good thing," says El-Baz. "We really must keep trying. This region cannot afford to give up on science."