Good prospects for computer sciences in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East

Published online 11 August 2011

Hazem Zohny

David Keyes
David Keyes

David Keyes is working to close the gap between Western and Arab scientific standards and he hopes computer science and engineering (CS&E) will lead the way. He is currently a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, United States, and dean of mathematical and computer sciences and engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia.

Since joining KAUST, Keyes has taught, mentored, recruited and helped shape the structure of the 2-year institution. He has also spent an extended time studying the intellectual, social and economic context within which KAUST is situated.

This past July, Keyes was awarded the Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Nature Middle East talked to Keyes to hear more about his current efforts and plans at KAUST.

What is your focus in terms of Arab science at KAUST?

I would say that my efforts for Arab science are gathered along a few lines. The most important is to cultivate a culture of computational science and engineering. Simulation is the third pillar of scientific discovery and engineering design, along with theory and experiment.

KAUST operates the most powerful computer for scientific simulation between Moscow, [Russia], and Shenzhen, [China], (a 77-degree band of longitude) and does so expertly.

Any rich country can purchase supercomputers. The main shortage is in people who are trained to exploit supercomputing. For a variety of projects in energy, environment, materials, biology and engineering, we are preparing the next generation of computational scientists and engineers at KAUST.

My own work tends to be hidden deep within applications, and is not by itself visible. The SciDAC Review describes my work to make simulations that physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers use more routinely for large-scale simulations.

Is your work limited to KAUST to this extent? How does this tie in with bringing together different scientific communities?

My interest in developing computational science and engineering at KAUST is because it offers a greenfield environment for CS&E to prosper.

We wish to start Middle Eastern chapters of such organizations as the United States Association of Computational Mechanics, which will promote regional conferences that are accessible to junior investigators without the visa and expense difficulties of traveling to conferences in major Western cities. We have participated in founding the KAUST chapter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). I was the first speaker in the founding conference of the Lebanese Society of the Mathematical Sciences, and I intend to encourage such programmes and organizations throughout the region.

We are working with our colleagues in Abu Dhabi to establish a computational mathematics curriculum at Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (KUSTAR).

Ultimately, we hope that we can link the best people from the United States, Europe and Asia to the best people in the Arab world so they can collaborate and develop a scientific culture that is so new that there is no dominant advantage from history. In contrast to something like theoretical physics, which has long traditions at universities such as Oxford, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East can become major players in computational science and engineering in a short time, boosting engineering companies by providing a trained workforce, and generating academic prestige and respect for progressive investments.

Will these organizations you want to start be regional or international?

My colleagues and I are not sure how dependent upon or independent from their Western counterparts any new Middle Eastern research organizations will be. We will be happy to help create them for our students to attend more local conferences and practice their profession with a regional identity and attract regional industry, and for ourselves to form regional collaborations, to do so. If others create them, we would be happy to join them.

Certainly, we are happy to be affiliated globally, and we fully expect that the associations of which we are members in the US would be happy to embrace a burgeoning region of the scientific world. However, we have not gotten very far yet. We are too busy building essential academic programmes and infrastructure at KAUST to put in too many strokes on national or regional affiliations. We are ready to spread the culture of computational science and engineering as far as it naturally goes, at the pace at which is naturally grows, without forcing it. We believe that what we do is so beautiful and compelling that it will draw adherents. When scientists get beautiful results, they want to share them, beginning with their neighbors.

Why do you think it is important to link Western and Arab science?

Building a globally relevant expertise in science and engineering is part of King Abdullah’s vision for KAUST, and it is attractive.

It is misleading in a sense to speak of Western science or Arab science. Science is universal, unlike, for instance, music or literature. Working scientists must accomplish their universal scientific objectives within supportive cultures, however, so we usefully speak of Western science or Arab science to refer to the scientific communities that naturally form.

My interest in developing computational science and engineering (CS&E) at KAUST is because it offers a greenfield environment for CS&E to prosper, without the constraints of disciplinarity. Most successful universities, such as Oxford University or Stanford University, are habituated to their success and under-invest in novel areas, like CS&E, whereas KAUST has encouraged investments in CS&E. It attracted my attention by offering an academic structure that does not impede interdisciplinarity and by providing resources for being productive scientifically and educationally.

CS&E is a new field. A university that makes the right moves today can quickly achieve international excellence and become influential. I am delighted that the Arab world is focusing a good portion of its fossil-derived wealth on supporting basic science and engineering research, particularly in sustainable technologies that will take it well beyond the era of fossil fuels. I want to encourage this investment. I hope that the Arab world can demonstrate through its new universities structures for supporting research that can be reproduced elsewhere and enrich research practices globally.

What advantages do Saudi Arabia and/or the Middle East have in terms of harnessing a science culture in CS&E?

It is a sense of ambition and adventure that I sense in Saudi Arabia and the region to solve global problems and to advance basic science, as in the Golden Age of the Bayt al Hikmah (House of Wisdom).

One lives and works for a short period and it is rewarding to spend those few decades in cultures that possess a "can do" attitude. Saudi Arabia today invests roughly 0.25% of GDP on R&D, yet it intends to invest more like the 2.5% typical of its Western and Asian counterparts. This order-of-magnitude ramp-up in investment can be directed to highly relevant problems and highly effective technologies. Those willing to start now can influence the scientific fruition of this investment.

For a decade, I have advised my government in the United States in the form of advisory committee reports and reports published by research agencies, such as a report I co-authored in 2011 on scientific software for the US National Science Foundation. The advice is respected and some has been implemented.

Good attention, but less attention, has been given in the case of Saudi Arabia, where there is more to build and where the multiplier of any single scientist, for the good of all humanity, can be larger.