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Saudi School Aims To Save The Planet

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Saudi School Aims To Save The Planet


Saudi School Aims To Save The Planet

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Now, we'll go from the Tennessee floods to the Saudi Arabian desert. Saudi King Abdullah gave $10 billion to an effort to solve some of the world's biggest problems. The result was a school called KAUST - that's an acronym for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and it's meant to be more than just a university. NPR's Larry Abramson had a look inside.

LARRY ABRAMSON: KAUST rises from the desert north of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, like the secret research lab in a James Bond movie. The desert blooms here, thanks to a private desalination plant and an army of gardeners. With a private Red Sea beach, knock-your-socks-off architecture and world-class labs, KAUST hopes to lure the world's brainiest scientists to this Xanadu for nerds. KAUST President, Choon Fong Shih, says this isn't a university in the traditional sense.

Mr. CHOON FONG SHIH (President, KAUST): KAUST is a global university of the 21st century. It's a place where we integrate graduate education with research at a cutting edge.

ABRAMSON: That word global is thrown around a lot in higher education these days. Every university is trying to spread its wings and go international. What's different at KAUST? Well, for one thing money. Money can buy some very nice science toys.

Professor STEVE CUTCHIN: So, this one here is a slice of a rat's brain stained in red, green and blue fluorescent dies. And right now you're looking at...

ABRAMSON: Steve Cutchin manages the visualization lab at KAUST. He's standing in front of a room-sized video screen that shows a microscopic view of a rat's brain with stunning clarity. Cutchin says this display also enables smooth video conferencing to anywhere in the world, including with his former home campus at the University of California, San Diego, halfway around the globe.

Prof. CUTCHIN: The really driving idea behind this, in all of this, is the ability to do this collaboration and hold meetings with people, like you're talking to Washington, D.C., talking to Japan. And they're effectively just in the room or down the building.

ABRAMSON: There's something else KAUST's huge budget can buy, according to David Keyes, dean of math and computer sciences.

Dean DAVID KEYES (Math and Computer Science, KAUST): You can purchase good friends, and we've purchased, if you will, a lot of very good friends.

ABRAMSON: Keyes left a nice post at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. KAUST is buying allegiances, Keyes says, by handing out big grants. Stanford, for example, is getting $5 million a year to help select KAUST faculty. Other schools receive millions to do joint research.

At the same time, KAUST is trying to blow up the internal structures that often lead to internecine battles at traditional universities. For example, there are no departments here. Instead, David Keyes says, KAUST pursues a mission oriented strategy.

Dr. KEYES: A mission-oriented program might be solar energy, as opposed to chemistry, physics, math, computer science - other things that are the disciplines that feed into that group.

ABRAMSON: And, in a move that may shock the ears of any listening faculty, KAUST has done away with tenure. That's right, people here will be judged only by how many useful ideas or products they come up with.

The first class of students here, numbers about 400 from all over the world. They chow down in the light-filled cafeteria, one of the few places in Saudi Arabia where college-aged men and women rub elbows.

Computer science student Luca Passone is Italian and studied in England. He says he came prepared to do without, but instead was overwhelmed by the amenities.

Mr. LUCA PASSONE (Student, KAUST): We have a cinema, we have a beach, sports centers, multiple gyms. We are very, very lucky to have so many things available for us.

ABRAMSON: KAUST has to pile on the luxuries because life can be pretty austere outside the campus gates. And even on the property, students cannot get alcohol or pork, which are banned in this Islamic state.

The university's relationship to the kingdom and to Islam are complicated at best. KAUST's PR man, Christopher Sands, shows me around the KAUST museum, which harkens back to the Arab world's golden age of learning a millennium ago.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SANDS (Public Relations, KAUST): Because the king's vision has always been to try to go back to what was the original house of wisdom, intellectual inquiry and groundbreaking science and technology are deeply integrated with the values of Islam.

ABRAMSON: In fact, the king defied conservatives in his country by going ahead with KAUST as a co-ed school, in a country where the sexes are still very segregated. Christopher Sands says religion is not taken into account in admissions, but in many ways, KAUST remains faithful to Islam.

Sands says there are five separate mosques on campus, which accommodate thousands. But there is no place here, on or off campus, for other faiths to worship.

Mr. SANDS: People are free to worship. There aren't any official facilities for it, but people do worship in the way they wish.

ABRAMSON: KAUST may be an anomaly in the academic world. It is less of an oddity in Saudi Arabia, which has long had special compounds for foreigners working here. KAUST clearly has the resources to succeed in the world of global research. The question is whether it will have an impact, just beyond its walls, on the host country.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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