Attracting international researchers to the Middle East

Published online 21 March 2014

Mohammed Yahia

As Middle Eastern countries rush to develop knowledge based-economies to diversify from reliance on natural resources, science institutions are vying to attract international talent to teach and conduct research locally.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a modern post-graduate research university set up in the small Red Sea city of Thuwal in Saudi Arabia, has been recruiting researchers from across Europe, Asia and the United States to boost its science calibre.

With reduced funding opportunities available for research in the West, KAUST's excellent facilities have attracted many scientists, despite the cultural shift implicit in the move. Enzo Di Fabrizio, an Italian physics professor who recently relocated to KAUST in Saudi Arabia, talked to Nature Middle East about his experience and offered advice for others who might make the move.

How long have you been at KAUST? And what lured you?

I have been at KAUST for a year and joined because of the university's unique vision. I am optimistic that we will succeed here in helping Saudi Arabia become an important player in the global scientific scene.

Were you concerned that your research might be affected by moving to a university in a country not renowned for science output?

For several reasons, it did not bother me. Historically, Saudi Arabia had contributed to several fields of modern science, such as hydraulic, optics, algebra, astronomy as well as literature.

As an Italian, I'm aware of the role Saudi Arabia played in in transmitting the Greek tradition to the Latin world. The history of culture has a deeper meaning and lasts longer than the momentary dominance of a particular nation or area in the world. In the last century, Europe and the US were the center of scientific knowledge. Nowadays, there are new countries and areas that are strongly contributing to science, such as China, India, South Korea, Singapore, and now also Brazil and Argentina, which are setting up new interesting programmes.

Saudi Arabia, through KAUST, is actively joining this worldwide process. It is an international university that offers very good possibilities for doing advanced research to its faculty and collaborators. As a scientist, I'm glad to help this country to improve its scientific knowledge and set up good infrastructures for future Saudi students.

What research opportunities do you have in Saudi Arabia that you did not have at home?

The quality of scientists and top management at KAUST is increasing year by year. Moreover, as beginners and founders, we are living a 'heroic' era, where people like to collaborate and are curious about each other's activities. This spirit may also be due to the fact that many scientists are aware of the big challenge we are facing to set up an international university in a few years.

What makes KAUST special is that the scientific mission overlaps clearly and effectively with a funding strategy. In Europe and the US, funding is shrinking — a sign of a lack of vision of future.

I would like to have more exchange programs with European students and colleagues and with the general European Union community. I believe that this would help Saudi Arabia and Europe to develop new ideas and discoveries related to the main research areas of KAUST: energy, water, environment and food security.

The move to Saudi Arabia must have entailed a big cultural change. How did you and your family manage that?

This is true, but we are curious and when you meet real people, and not simply compare ideology or religion, things are much simpler. Saudi Arabians are very hospitable and we understand each other and respect each other's cultural traditions.

My plan is to stay at KAUST for a long time and maybe even complete my career here. Right now, I'm in a leave of absence from the University of Magna Graecia for five years. I would like to prolong this period if KAUST will continue to pursue its objectives.

What do you think is needed in the Middle East to have a science renaissance?

Science achievements are collective. Leaders in the Middle East should invest in good schools and education programmes at all levels. The future of any country will be knowledge-based. Beyond natural resources, such as oil or minerals or solar, the main resources will be in the cultural level of citizens. Raw material will only be one part of the added value of products; the major role will be played by the functions included in the product and these functions are strictly related to scientific and technological knowledge. KAUST will give back good scientists and teachers to Saudi Arabia, and this will definitively help the process of transforming to a science renaissance.

What advice would you have for other researchers who are considering moving to the Middle East or to KAUST based on your experience there?

All members of the KAUST community are aware of the challenge of transforming it from a good university to a top one. So the faculty are engaged in well-funded research which is drawing top international scientists to the universities, administrative departments are trying to have a helpful bureaucracy, and the students are excited to have easy access to top facilities and a variety of lectures. The number of conferences at KAUST is increasing each year and the university is now well known internationally.

I would advise scientists in the West to establish a relationship with Middle Eastern institutions and come visit us at KAUST. You will realize what we are working on together and are learning from each other. I hope that many scientists will discover the importance and the pleasure of building a future of peace and wealth through science.