Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saudi Universities buying Academic Prestige?

by Salman Hameed

I have written multiple times about King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) before (for example, here, here, and here). KAUST has the second largest university endowment in the world and is supported by the Saudi government. I have written about the promise (it may open up genuine science opportunities) and also the perils of such an experiment (will it have any impact when it is isolated from the general Saudi society, etc.).

But now comes the news that two other Saudi universities, King Abdullah University (KAU) and King Saud University (KSU) have been buying academic prestige by offering money to high profile researchers so they can list one of these universities as affiliations. While there are couple of tricky issues here, ultimately, the central question ought to be: Is this the best investment of money for building the scientific infrastructure of Saudi Arabia?

So lets first look at what has been going on. From Science (tip from Gary Dargan):

At first glance, Robert Kirshner took the e-mail message for a scam. An astronomer at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was offering him a contract for an adjunct professorship that would pay $72,000 a year. Kirshner, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, would be expected to supervise a research group at KAU and spend a week or two a year on KAU's campus, but that requirement was flexible, the person making the offer wrote in the e-mail. What Kirshner would be required to do, however, was add King Abdulaziz University as a second affiliation to his name on the Institute for Scientific Information's (ISI's) list of highly cited researchers. 
“I thought it was a joke,” says Kirshner, who forwarded the e-mail to his department chair, noting in jest that the money was a lot more attractive than the 2% annual raise professors typically get. Then he discovered that a highly cited colleague at another U.S. institution had accepted KAU's offer, adding KAU as a second affiliation on
Kirshner's colleague is not alone. Science has learned of more than 60 top-ranked researchers from different scientific disciplines—all on ISI's highly cited list—who have recently signed a part-time employment arrangement with the university that is structured along the lines of what Kirshner was offered. Meanwhile, a bigger, more prominent Saudi institution—King Saud University in Riyadh—has climbed several hundred places in international rankings in the past 4 years largely through initiatives specifically targeted toward attaching KSU's name to research publications, regardless of whether the work involved any meaningful collaboration with KSU researchers.
Oh - and apart from all other things, all 60 researchers are men. At least there is consistently in the Saudi approach: If women can't drive, they can't be given money even if they are a top-notch researcher :)
Academics who have accepted KAU's offer represent a wide variety of faculty from elite institutions in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. All are men. Some are emeritus professors who have recently retired from their home institutions. All have changed their affiliation on ISI's highly cited list—as required by KAU's contract—and some have added KAU as an affiliation on research papers. Other requirements in the contract include devoting “the whole of your time, attention, skill and abilities to the performance of your duties” and doing “work equivalent to a total of 4 months per contract period.” 
Neil Robertson, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Ohio State University in Columbus who has signed on, says he has no concerns about the offer. “It's just capitalism,” he says. “They have the capital and they want to build something out of it.” Another KAU affiliate, astronomer Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, notes that “universities buy people's reputations all the time. In principle, this is no different from Harvard hiring a prominent researcher.” 
Officials at KAU did not respond to Science's request for an interview. But Surender Jain, a retired mathematics professor from Ohio University in Athens who is an adviser to KAU and has helped recruit several of the adjuncts, provided a list of 61 academics who have signed contracts similar to the one sent to Kirshner. The financial arrangements in the contracts vary, Jain says: For instance, some adjuncts will receive their compensation not as salary but as part of a research grant provided by KAU. 
Jain acknowledges that a primary goal of the program—funded by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Higher Education—is to “improve the visibility and ranking of King Abdulaziz University.” But he says KAU also hopes the foreign academics will help it kick-start indigenous research programs. “We're not just giving away money,” he says. Most recruits will be expected to visit for a total of 4 weeks in a year to “give crash courses”; they will also be expected to supervise dissertations and help KAU's full-time faculty members develop research proposals. Even the “shadows” of such eminent scholars would inspire local students and faculty members, he says.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it). Okay now onto some tricky issues. I think it is absolutely true that having access to such researchers will not only improve the visibility of the universities but will also allow the ability to have fruitful collaborations that otherwise may be difficult to forge. It is also true that students will benefit - even if a top researcher visits there for only a few weeks a year. One can argue that this is better than no visit. 

The problem, however, in all this is the return on each dollar spent. Is spending $72,000 for a 2-3 week visit is the best use of that money? Perhaps, most importantly,this may tell us more about the attitude towards building scientific institutions. 

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Money can only buy so much. Ultimately, scientific gains come from the human capital of the country, and that comes from developing strong educational institutions at all levels of educations and crucially for both sexes. Similarly, it is equally important to create an environment where students and faculty members can think freely (since Saudi government is behind these universities, we have to acknowledge that it is the same government that does allow women to drive or own a passport). Yes, money is also important - but the obsession to be included in a list of top universities is misguided at best. The goal should be to produce good thinkers and researchers, and the rankings should follow that. Is the best way to produce good thinkers and researchers depend on paying $72,000 for a 2-3 week visit per year? Probably not. Instead, may be, Saudi Arabia can look at places like Singapore. They also have an authoritarian regime, but their investments in education have been smart and have been producing interesting scientific results. It may take a decade or two, but the results may also be more permanent. 

Do you think the Saudi strategy of affiliations will be successful in the long run?


Darakhshan said...

I think it is a rather in the style of the Saudis, to think they can buy everything! The critiques are well-known and you have pointed out some of them. Yes, we all know what the problem is. Yes, we all know this is not how a society progresses, yes academics who are being bought will not provide a sustainable solution. All that being said, I am trying to think from the perspective of a Saudi student and the opportunities he/she(she less than he, obviously) has to work with and learn from real scientists and an opportunity to engage with Science. (and/or humanities, etc for that matter) For a curious, intelligent, hard-working student this is definitely better than not having any such avenues. One needs to ask, which section of the society will have the most access to this opportunity. I don't know much about the socio-economic intricacies of the Saudi society, but my guess is that it is rather overwhelmingly in favor of the elites and the upper middle class. However, isn't it still better, than what opportunities people have currently? Isn't it better to have SOME MORE people engage with Science and the scientific method and learning, than NO-ONE or VERY FEW?

Salman Hameed said...

"However, isn't it still better, than what opportunities people have currently? Isn't it better to have SOME MORE people engage with Science and the scientific method and learning, than NO-ONE or VERY FEW?"

Darakhshan - this may be the only valid defense of such a strategy. However, the problem is at what cost? For example, a Saudi Prince sponsored a shuttle mission and went to space for a few days. Or more recently, another one saved an X-ray satellite by providing millions of dollars to it. If a 3 or 4 Saudi benefit from it, should we be okay with it?

But there may be a bigger problem with the university approach mentioned in the post. It may provide a false impression that Saudi universities are doing great, and that the money is being well spent. The question should be: Given the investment of x amount of dollars, where will be Saudi science in 10 or 20 years? I'm not very hopeful with the current approach.

Anonymous said...

Saudi kingdom is a real sore in the bum, with its petro-dollars fueling militancy, the whole world is in a mess.

Darakhshan said...

True, the cost-benefit analysis would probably not make it worth it. What are alternative arrangements? I would say recruiting scientists and researchers primarily from within the Arab world, people who have decent, respectable PhDs from respectable institutes, and engage in good work, publish regularly, would be better? The thing is, and the Saudis recognize that, they wouldn't want to come there. So, in some sense you know that you have to throw money at the problem, if you do not want to change things fundamentally. So, if that is a given, what are the things one can think about, that will work within this constraint, but also be a better use of all this money? A few other questions arise:

1) Who makes these decisions in Saudi Arabia? Are there are Saudi scientists/ academics involved? From the report it seems some academics are involved:
" But Surender Jain, a retired mathematics professor from Ohio University in Athens who is an adviser to KAU and has helped recruit several of the adjuncts "

My worry is that these academics coming from outside the country are advising the University to fulfill the short-term goals and criteria that the University administration thinks are important. Who are the people who have a higher stake in improving Saudi Arabia's educational and research system? I doubt Saudi academics and scientists(yes, there are few of them, even women!) would support such a thing.

2) Wouldn't it be better to have an exchange program with an US/UK University and send your graduate students there for a large part of their degree to be advised by these people, fund these Saudi students with a requirement that they come back and teach and perform research in the country? Wouldn't that be a more genuine solution?