Saturday, October 31, 2009

More on KAUST

Science (Oct 16) has a good piece on King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). It considers it as one of the most ambitious experiments in higher education and, if successful, can start transforming education in the Middle East. It also raises concerns about the intrusion of "corporate culture" in a university setting since the oil company Aramco is playing a dominant role in the university's affairs (both financially and administratively). Nevertheless, we'll have to see how KAUST shapes up in practice. Here couple of highlights from the article, The Big Gamble in the Saudi Desert (may require subscription):
KAUST is perhaps the most-watched experiment in higher education taking place anywhere in the world. Its huge endowment is certainly an attention-getter: Two years ago, KAUST officials used a figure of $10 billion, although one knowledgeable source says the number is actually $20 billion. Saudi officials decided to make it a graduate-only university so that it wouldn't compete for undergraduates with existing Saudi institutions. KAUST hopes eventually to be the size of the California Institute of Technology—roughly 250 faculty and 2500 students—and to rival it in prestige. It's also the first Saudi institution of higher education to allow men and women to mix freely. ... To retain the talent being amassed, Saudi officials know they will need to maintain a high quality of life. So within the barbed wire and concrete barricades that encircle the campus, Aramco is building an entire community, with all the residential, retail, recreational, and cultural amenities that any academic scientist would expect. The thousands of palm trees lining the main roads and academic complexes even help Berumen, an avid golfer, forget he's in a desert as he whacks balls at a driving range adjacent to a nine-hole golf course scheduled to open this month.
Yes, the this kind of disconnect from the Saudi society at large should raise all sorts of alarm bells. Nevertheless, we can hope that there is going to be a lot of discussion on this separation and hopefully the larger influence will move from the university to the cities rather than the other way around. But check this out: The start-up package for scientists is phenomenal:

For most scientists, however, the biggest difference is how their research will be funded. Rather than having to submit a never-ending stream of grant applications to government agencies and face depressingly low success rates, each faculty member has been given substantial internal support—$400,000 annually for assistant professors, $600,000 for associate professors, and $800,000 for full professors—from which they can hire students and technicians, buy materials and supplies, travel, and otherwise tend to the needs of their individual labs. The funding supplements full access to core lab facilities that include a 220-teraflops IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer that will be upgraded to a petaflops machine, an industrial-quality nanofabrication facility, a state-of-the-art visualization center, and 10 nuclear magnetic resonance machines, including a 950-MHz instrument that is not yet on the market. "It was like setting a bunch of kids loose in the best toy shop in the world," says Neil Alford, chair of the materials science department at Imperial College London (ICL), which helped KAUST assemble the noncomputing components of its core labs. That's not all. Salaries are more than competitive with those in the West, say researchers, many of whom also receive free housing and other generous benefits.

The facilities also look amazing. In addition, I think there are certain areas where KAUST can truly excel. Oceanography is certainly one such area:

None of the new recruits ever imagined doing science in Saudi Arabia until they heard what KAUST had to offer. "I loved, really loved, working at Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution]," says Michael Berumen, a 29-year-old assistant professor of marine sciences and the first hire by the Red Sea center's director, James Luyten, a former director of WHOI. "But field-based work on reefs is such a huge part of what I do. And now I have the ability to just pop on a boat for a couple of hours, to grab some coral samples or check on the fish we've just been talking about. And then you add in these incredible facilities."

At the same time, the founding faculty includes only 5 females (out of roughly 70 faculty members - also see the figure above):

Khashab is one of only five women among the founding faculty. Shih says that's a concern and adds that he plans "to redouble our efforts to recruit women." But he isn't sanguine about his chances of success. "There is a shortage of women everywhere, especially at the senior level, and we are competing with the rest of the world," he says.
No - seriously. You can find more than 5 qualified women for the fields that KAUST is offering. Now it is also possible (quite likely, in fact) that women scientists may not want to live in Saudi Arabia, but then that concern should be up front and the university should make an extra effort to provide other research incentives. But the founding faculty picture above doesn't look good.

In any case, we'll see how the KAUST experiment will shape up. Clearly, this a step in the right direction - but also with much much room for improvement. We'll have to see what impact will it have on the Saudi society. If you have subscription to Science, you can read the full article here.

Also see earlier posts:
KAUST and King Abdullah
Co-ed University for Saudi Elites?

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