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KAUST: from vision to reality

A new ivory tower in Saudi Arabia

By Matin Durrani

It’s at least an hour’s drive north of Jeddah along a dusty and baking hot six-lane highway to get to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which Saudi Arabia hopes will soon become one of the world’s leading research institutions.

The question, though, is will researchers be tempted to the shores of the Red Sea and turn KAUST into what its proponents envisage? Why give up a respectable career path in, say, the US or Europe to join a new university with no track record in a country that, in recent times, is not exactly a power house on the world research stage?

That’s the question I hope to answer while here at KAUST over the next two days.

Of course, there’s the money: KAUST comes with an endowment of $10bn, which is not to be sniffed at. The salaries are sure to be good.

Then there are the spanking-new research facilities, which include a nanotech lab, one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and a visualization unit.

KAUST also intends to be interdisciplinary and global in outlook, with researchers from all over the world.

The university also will look after staff well, with housing, recreational facilities, schools and so on. The main building itself is a fabulous glass-and-steel edifice overlooking a lagoon next to the sea.

But perhaps the biggest pull is the vision of the university’s leaders and the chance to make a mark right from the start in creating something different.

The university wants to focus on topics like solar energy — Saudi Arabia’s biggest asset after its oil and gas — as well as clean combustion, and the development of plants that can survive in hot desert conditions.

It is all is part of a plan to create a new “house of wisdom” and put science in the Islamic world back to the level it enjoyed centuries ago.

Well, that’s the spiel we’ve been hearing at the official press conference. But given that scientists are always moaning about a lack of cash, it’s hard to begrudge what is certainly an ambitious scientific venture.

And thanks to air conditioning, that baking heat is nicely out of reach.

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