Competition, Tough Standards, Bring New Vigor to Saudi Science

Several years ago, Saudi Arabia’s leaders were confronted with a challenge: The kingdom had a well-established science sector and strengths in several areas, but while research publications were surging in some Middle Eastern nations, Saudi publication numbers were flat. Science competition was escalating, and they were falling behind.

Commitment to research. The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s national science agency, is working with AAAS and others to develop a knowledge economy. Credit: King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology [Credit: King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology]

To reverse the trend, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology—KACST, the Saudi national science agency—committed to an ambitious research and education plan designed to make the kingdom 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 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.”

The AAAS-KACST relationship reflects the kingdom’s broad science ambitions and growing international recognition of the venture. It has established partnerships with corporate giants, leading universities, and top scholars. It built the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a state-of-the-art, coeducational research center, to serve as an engine of innovation.

AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, while serving as Science and Technology 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.

KACST was founded in 1977. In 2002, the kingdom’s Council of Ministers approved a national S&T policy, and in 2007 the science agency adopted its National Science, Technology, and Innovation Plan.


Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud


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

The role of the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program in Saudi Arabia is a natural extension of its work in 30 U.S. states and several foreign nations since its founding in 1996. It assembles teams of scientists, engineers, policy-makers, 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 Edward Derrick, former head of the Research Competitiveness

Program and now director of the association’s Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs. A former high-ranking University of Michigan administrator had close ties with Saudi science leaders who were beginning to implement their plan, and he knew of AAAS’s work in the state. He helped arrange a meeting.

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

Each 2-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 2 years, Derrick’s team had put 1,000 proposals from more than a dozen Saudi universities through peer review. Last winter, there was another batch of 300, and spring brought 500 more.

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 often more sophisticated.

KACST last year asked AAAS to help assess the kingdom’s core facilities program, looking for ways to create synergy by bringing diverse disciplines together, support commercialization of discoveries, and enhance efficiency. And AAAS in June agreed to manage peer review of research proposals for a Saudi organization that studies Alzheimer’s disease.

The next step, said current program director Mark Milutinovich, may be for KACST to evaluate what the grants are accomplishing—and discussions are under way on the role AAAS might have in that process.

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.”