Premier Research University Rises In Saudi Desert Saudi Arabia is not known for great research universities, so the oil-rich country has decided to build one. KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, is rising in the desert near Jiddah. The king is giving the school one of the world's biggest endowments.
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Premier Research University Rises In Saudi Desert

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Premier Research University Rises In Saudi Desert

Premier Research University Rises In Saudi Desert

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The high oil prices we just heard about have also brought benefits to Saudi Arabia. And we're about to hear where some of the oil money is being spent. Thousands of workers are constructing the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. It's known fondly as KAUST. That's the acronym. King Abdullah wants this university to be the world leader in science and engineering research right from the day it opens. And to make sure that happens, he is supplying the school with one of the world's biggest endowments. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Help wanted: leading researcher in highly obscure technological fields. Access to the best science facilities on the planet. Top flight, Western-style accommodations.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: Recreation activities include a world-class grass golf course, tennis courts, parks and playgrounds for children, a movie theater…

ABRAMSON: The KAUST recruitment video paints a picture that looks like one of those cities in "Star Wars" - remote yet totally modern, a research utopia. Sound like a vanity project for the world's largest oil producer? KAUST Provost Fawwaz Ulaby says there's more to it than that.

Provost FAWWAZ ULABY (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology): It views itself as an international entity, and wants to build honest-to-God academic bridges with many university partners around the world.

ABRAMSON: Ulaby has been teaching electrical engineering at the University of Michigan for over 20 years. KAUST wants to lure other bright minds to Jeddah. It won't be easy. Construction only began a year ago on a patch of desert on the Red Sea. Fawwaz Ulaby says most schools spend decades building up their facilities and their reputations.

Provost ULABY: And here you're trying to do all of that in five years. You're trying to recruit the students, recruit the faculty, with a physical infrastructure, very sophisticated laboratory facilities.

ABRAMSON: KAUST has many advantages. It's a graduate center, so the school won't have to bother with all the distractions of undergraduate education. And KAUST isn't planning to do all that cutting edge research itself. The school is already starting to fund academics around the world to build their own research centers.

Stanford Professor Michael McGee will lead a KAUST-funded center at Stanford that will try to make solar cells less expensive.

Professor MICHAEL McGEE (Stanford University): If I can get one of the world's greatest oil producers excited about renewable energy, I think that's just great.

ABRAMSON: Beyond the school's largesse, KAUST collaborators say the university is granting generous terms for any intellectual property that's developed. That was important to Cornell Professor Lynden Archer, who's getting $5 million a year to do research on nano materials.

Professor LYNDEN ARCHER (Cornell University): KAUST is, in fact, not interested in owning intellectual property developed in the research, which I thought at the time and still think is sort of an unusual way to enter into such a relationship.

ABRAMSON: The KAUST endowment, estimated as high as $20 billion, would make the school among the world's richest. KAUST will only say it offers competitive salaries, but Provost Fawwaz Ulaby says the real allure for U.S. researchers is independence from the constant need to raise money.

Provost ULABY: You end up spending - and I've been told by many colleagues -30, 40, 50 and in some cases 60 percent of your time writing proposals and chasing money.

ABRAMSON: Once the faculty arrives, the question will be: Will they stay long enough to build a real university community? No matter how fancy the accommodations, it may be tough to persuade faculty to make KAUST their permanent home. And KAUST will also have to combat Saudi Arabia's image problem as an Islamic monarchy with some serious human-rights issues. Officially, Jewish researchers are welcome, but it's not clear whether Israelis will be able to participate in the KAUST vision.

Officially, King Abdullah is offering complete academic freedom. Some Saudi restrictions, for example, like the ban on women drivers, won't apply on campus. But there are limits. Like the rest of the kingdom, KAUST will be alcohol-free.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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