King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) – Leads a Scientific Renaissance

At a time when intellectually-agile tradition of the Muslim world seems to be forgotten, a pioneering project in a “desert country” is set to revive the past glory of the golden Islamic era. A “country of Bedouins” sometimes accused of breeding fanaticism is doing something fantastic. Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of King Abdullah who is determined to breed future Ibn Sinas and Muhammad al-Khorezmis in order to create innovative ideas in the field of science and technology.

At a time when intellectually-agile tradition of the Muslim world seems to be forgotten, a pioneering project in a “desert country” is set to revive the past glory of the golden Islamic era. A “country of Bedouins” sometimes accused of breeding fanaticism is doing something fantastic. Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of King Abdullah who is determined to breed future Ibn Sinas and Muhammad al-Khorezmis in order to create innovative ideas in the field of science and technology.

The proposed King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is a dream of the King Abdullah, custodian of the two holy mosques. The proposed 20 billion Saudi Riyal project site lies in the west coast of Thuwal, 80 kilometers north of Jeddah.

Speaking on the occasion of groundbreaking ceremony held on October 21, King Abdullah said that the university will be a place to share “minds and the ideas of enlightened men and women” without “discrimination”. He harked back to Islam’s first “House of Wisdom” and said that the forum dedicated to science and research will be a ” beacon of knowledge for future generations.”

Saudi Aramco, the state-owned world’s largest oil company, has been commissioned to design and build the university’s campus. The campus is stretched over nearly 9000 acres of coastal land. It is expected to be completed by September 2009.

The KAUST will be a graduate university where learning will be substantiated by the research. Aspirants from across the globe will be selected strictly on the basis of merit. KAUST will have research centers and research institutes. The first-four planned research institute will be:

  1. Resources, Energy and Environment,
  2. Biosciences and Bioengineering,
  3. Materials Science and Engineering,
  4. Applied Mathematics and Computational Science
Cumputer Rendering: View of Engineering & Science Building

Dr. Charles M. Vest, President, National Academy of Engineering and President Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) highlighted the importance of Research University in the 21 st Century in his keynote address.

“Research universities”, he said, “create opportunities for industries, cities, nations, and regions by preparing educated citizens and by direct application of the new knowledge, new understandings, and new technologies that flow from their research and scholarship .”

Dr. Vest spoke at length about the evolution, migration and globalization of research universities. “There are many lessons to be learned from this evolution”, he said. He listed down six important lessons to be learnt from the research university experience of the 20 th Century.

KAUST is based on Dr. Vest’s first lesson: Teaching and research must be intimately intertwined.

“Teaching and research are inseparable”, he said.

“And it is their synergy”, he emphasized “that defines the essence of a research university.”

One of the most important lessons that Dr. Vest offered at the inaugural session of KAUST is that ” fundamental scholarship and research must exist on an equal plane with applied research and innovation.”

Elaborating on this lesson he very subtly hinted at the business community . ” We are very aware that research universities create opportunity for nations and regions through the transfer of technology and innovation to the marketplace.”

He also spoke about relevance of education to entrepreneurship. “Industrially relevant work is increasingly important”, he said, and “an environment that is entrepreneurial also gives relevance to education.”

Dr. Vest also spoke on open environment in a research university where people across the globe study and challenge one’s hypothesis so as to arrive at the results of scientific experiments.

“Science”, he said, “cannot be done in isolation.”

“And, of course, interactions among scholars, scientists, and engineers who have diverse perspectives and varied experiences lead to creativity and innovation.”

His mantra for the success of Research University is this: compete as well as cooperate. “It is a paradox of this age that we all must cooperate as well as compete”, he said.

KAUST has already tied with many internationally renowned institutes like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Indian Institute of Technology, National University of Singapore to name a few.

Dr. Vest cautioned on the two “opposing trends” of today’s age: integration and fragmentation. He said that KAUST is all about integration. “We are linked by the knowledge and understanding developed by many people in many places”, he said.

KAUST has two bodies as of now. First is International Advisory Council (IAC) which meets twice a year to review plans and provide guidance and feedback to Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources of Saudi Arabia and man-in-charge of the KAUST. Second body is Presidential Search Committee (PSC) which is still on a hunt for the right candidate.

Plenty of universities are launched worldwide so why this brouhaha about KAUST?

KAUST reminds us of madrasas of Samarkand , Bukhara and Khiva in Central Asia . They were not merely religious seminaries but also great universities where mathematics, medicine and astronomy and all sciences were taught. Khiva is the birthplace of Muhammad al-Khorezmi, the father of algebra. The algebra has evolved from his technique of solving quadratic equations. Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was among the foremost medical authorities of his time. He studied and taught at the madrasas at Bukhara and Khiva.

KAUST can once again play that historic role in shaping innovative ideas, in sharpening the rough edges of young and restless minds. If KAUST can transform an innovative spark into a full-fledged fire, then that will not be simply the gain of business community but it will be the gain of the community as well.

In the world of pharmaceuticals, the word research is the mother of all inventions. Who knows that a research university like KAUST will produce future scientists for major pharmaceutical players such as Hikma, Cipla, or Hamdard?

If King Abdullah’s dream becomes a reality, we are sure; it will produce a lot of scientific dreamers.