AAAS Role Expands in Saudi Arabia’s Push for Science Capacity, Knowledge Economy

Several years ago, Saudi Arabia’s leaders faced a critical challenge: Other nations in the Middle East were making dramatic progress in science and technology, and by various measures, they were falling behind. The kingdom had a well-established science sector and strengths in key areas, but while some other nations had surging research publication rates, for example, its publications were flat.

To answer the escalating competition, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology—KACST, the Saudi national science agency—committed to a far-reaching plan designed to transform the kingdom into a global research power by 2025. As one element in this effort, KACST asked the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program to help shape a grant competition based on international standards and tough, independent peer-review.

Today, research funding has increased, and competition for research grants is growing more intense. With the support of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is pressing ahead with extensive new science-related construction and projects. And the KACST-AAAS partnership is expanding into important new areas.

“From the start, we decided that… we should raise the bar quite high so that we get our researchers used to tough competition and strong evaluation,” said Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud, KACST’s vice president for research institutes. “And we chose AAAS because of its experience in this—it is a leading science organization and it has done evaluations like this in the United States and other places. We think that this is the right organization to work with.”

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Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud

[Photo © King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology]

The AAAS-KACST relationship reflects the kingdom’s broad science ambitions, and the growing international recognition of its innovation potential. It is recruiting top overseas scholars and undertaking projects with corporate giants like IBM and Intel, and with leading universities such as Oxford, Stanford, and UCLA.

It built the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a state-of-the-art, co-educational research center, to serve as an engine of innovation, and assured it one of the largest university endowments in the world. AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, while serving as science adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, delivered a keynote address at the university’s inauguration ceremonies in 2009. Today, the influential plant biologist is a distinguished professor there.

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Nina V. Fedoroff

Moving Beyond an Oil-Based Economy

Science—and S&T partnership with the United States—are not new interests for the Saudis. In an interview, Turki described how the two nations formed a committee in the mid-1970s to develop collaboration across many areas, including science; the committee was headed by the late King Fahd and then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

KACST was founded in 1977. Eight years later, Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud joined a U.S. space shuttle crew and became the first Saudi—and the first Arab—in space.

But in the first decade of the new century, there were troubling signs. The Saudis’ world ranking in research publications was declining; their home-grown workforce didn’t have enough workers with research and technical skills. In 2002, the kingdom’s Council of Ministers approved a national S&T policy, and in 2007 its science agency adopted its National Science, Technology and Innovation Plan.

Turki, who earned a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University, explained the plan’s goal in a telephone interview: With investments, partnerships, and initiatives to develop the skills of kingdom’s 26 million people, Saudi leaders want to transform their oil economy to a knowledge economy.

“The main purpose was to move the kingdom away from dependence on oil and to make the kingdom dependent on our real resource—the people,” he explained. “The kingdom began to invest in its people a long time ago in education, but it has not tapped that capability as a sustainable economic resource. So the kingdom decided we should really invest in science and technology, diversify the economy, and move the country to a knowledge-based economy and society.”

The plan focuses on more than a dozen areas of research and advanced technology, from water desalination and solar energy to nanotechnology, biotechnology, and space science.

Through that plan, Saudi leaders hope to become a regional S&T power by 2015, and a leading Asian power by 2020. By 2025, they aim to join the world’s industrialized nations and others with a knowledge-based economy.

Growing Support from AAAS

The role of the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program in Saudi Arabia is a natural extension its work in 30 U.S. states and several foreign nations since its founding in 1996. It assembles teams of scientists, engineers, policymakers, and innovators, then provides clients with expert peer review and guidance in strategic planning, research infrastructure, technology-based economic development, and related areas.

The KACST-AAAS collaboration dates to 2008, said former program Director Edward Derrick, who now oversees it as head of the association’s Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs. A former high-ranking University of Michigan administrator knew of AAAS’s work in the state; he also had close ties with Saudi science leaders who were beginning to implement their plan. He helped arrange a meeting at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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Edward Derrick

[Photo by Edward W. Lempinen]

“They had decided on making these investments in research projects,” Derrick recalled. “They needed a process to get these proposals peer-reviewed externally, in an unbiased way. And I said: ‘We can do that.’”

Each two-year grant totals about $500,000, with protocols set by the Saudi science agency. The first batch of proposals, about 200 in all, arrived at AAAS in the autumn of 2008. After two years, Derrick’s team had put 1000 proposals from more than a dozen Saudi universities through peer review. Now the numbers are rising sharply: Last winter there was another batch of 300, and this spring brought 500 more.

Generally, Derrick said, at least three reviewers assess each proposal; about 300 scholars we recruited to evaluate the round of proposals received from KACST late last year. (The AAAS Technology Services division developed a Web site that allows the reviewers to log in securely and conduct reviews.)

The project has brought Derrick and current project Director Mark Milutinovich into close engagement not only with KACST, but with a number of Saudi universities and research centers. At the beginning, Turki said, many Saudi researchers were cool to the idea of outsiders reviewing their work. But the competition has continued, and researchers have gotten a better sense of the process and the standards. While many of the early proposals were worthy of funding, Derrick said, proposals now are increasingly stronger and more sophisticated.

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Mark Milutinovich

[Photo by Edward W. Lempinen]

An Expanding Partnership

With the kingdom’s significant investments and the continuing progress of their innovation plan, KACST leaders are now looking to a new stage of progress: They want to create synergy by bringing diverse disciplines together. They want to support commercialization of discoveries. And they want to avoid duplication and enhance efficiency.

Last year, they asked the Research Competitiveness Program to help assess the kingdom’s core facilities. Derrick and a hand-picked team of experts visited the kingdom to assess current facilities and future plans, with an eye toward helping the kingdom achieve those goals.

Most recently, AAAS in June reached agreement with a second Saudi agency to manage peer review of research proposals on Alzheimer’s disease.

The next step, said Milutinovich, may be for KACST to evaluate what the grants are accomplishing—and discussions are underway on the role AAAS might have in that process. “Regardless of whether AAAS is involved or not,” he said, “it’s something our colleagues at KACST will need to do to assess the progress they’re making toward their goals.”

In Turki’s view, the collaboration is paying clear dividends. “We have established a certain level of quality that everyone appreciates, and it is helping to turn around the research capability in the kingdom,” he said. “We are very much interested in keeping this relationship and expanding the cooperation.”

Links

Learn more about the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program.

Learn more about the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

An abridged version of this story was published in the journal Science [AAAS News & Notes, 29 July 2011].