Changing attitudes in Saudi Arabia

Published online 2 April 2014

Jean M. J. Fréchet, vice-president for research at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), talked to Nature Materials about the achievements of this institution since its foundation in 2009 and its contribution to shaping research attitudes in Saudi Arabia.

Luigi Martiradonna

After more than 40 years in America what convinced you to move to Saudi Arabia in 2010?

At the time, I had a productive research group at Berkeley that peaked at about 60 people, I had been involved in a number of start-ups and three venture funds, and I think that I was fairly successful in academia. But I had been doing this for quite a while and I had an itch to do something new and different. When I visited KAUST in late 2009, I thought it was a unique opportunity. Here was an institution that was being created from scratch, which was very well funded with the aim of becoming a world-leading university. Where else would I find a similar opportunity? This is what excited me.

Did you find remarkable differences between the Saudi and US research environments?

In 2010 that was the case. But the mission given to KAUST by King Abdullah was to change the research environment in Saudi Arabia. Essentially, the mission was to create a high-level research university and, by this process, catalyse change towards a knowledge-based economy in the Kingdom. When I first arrived, things were quite difficult; parts of the University were still being built, and we had many issues with supply lines and getting the equipment installed and operational. However, in the past 4 years there have been tremendous changes. With full cooperation of the various ministries involved, our procurement and government affairs staff worked to simplify importation procedures and establish reliable and efficient supply lines. We have established our own office at the airport to oversee the processing of supplies as they arrive, take them through customs and then bring them directly to KAUST. Now we can get almost anything we need for research; we won't get it as fast as in the US, but we will get it within 3–4 weeks, and in good condition.

Why is KAUST different from other Saudi universities and research centres built with the ambition of reaching worldwide resonance?


The King's vision was to create a private, English language, graduate-level university, independent from the Ministry of Higher Education. As a private University we are not funded by the Government but we operate on the basis of our own endowment, which I think is one of the largest in the world. And we are ruled by an international board of trustees. It is this independence that gives us an edge and allows us to move more nimbly towards our goal of excellence.

Can you describe the structure of KAUST in terms of facilities and human resources?

KAUST is in a phase of growth. At present we have about 125 professors, and we aim to employ about 220 at full maturity. We have about 750 students, 350 postdocs and 250 research scientists. We don't want to grow very large: our model is Caltech, except that we will not have undergraduate students. We have nine research centres within KAUST that employ about half of the faculty members, and are focused on four main research areas: water, food, energy and the environment. These strategic thrust areas were selected very early on, in 2006–2007, by a very distinguished group of consultants who devised the formula of research centres with goals of high relevance to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I must mention that although there was an initial emphasis on these nine research centres, about 50% of our faculty members do very good and more independent fundamental and applied research outside of the centres' structure. They have their own individual labs, and have full access to our shared core-lab facilities, with about US$400 million of state-of-the art equipment.

Is there a specific budget for each professor to start up and support their research?

When new professors arrive, we provide them with generous start-up funding, which also includes equipment with values that may reach US$1–3 million depending on the needs of the specialty. They also receive guaranteed 'baseline' research support, this varies from about US$350,000 per year for a young assistant professor with little or no experimental needs to over a million dollars a year for our most senior distinguished professors. Part of this money is used to support PhD students, hire postdocs and research scientists. Our PhD students get a tax-free stipend of US$30,000 a year, free accommodation and a free ticket home every year for them and their family. We also have a generous funding scheme, about US$5 million per year for each centre, to support work within our research centres, and a competitive funding scheme in which researchers write proposals for additional funding. These proposals are reviewed by external panels of experts and our success rate is about 40%, with 3-year grants funded at the level of US$300,000–500,000 a year. I should mention that all of our internal funding is overhead-free.

Are researchers encouraged to collaborate internationally?

Yes. Many of our researchers are involved in collaborations with top scientists worldwide. Because we are a small-size University, we cannot cover everything ourselves, which means that external collaborations are very important to our success. As a result, we have adjusted our funding scheme to allow external collaborators to share a portion of the grant money our faculty receive. Of course, we are very selective, we don't throw money away; but we strongly believe that maintaining external collaborations is very important for us because it provides a means to complement the skills that we have internally.

How are scientists evaluated?

We rely on the scientific community at large to help us in the evaluation — both for contract renewals and for competitive grants. For example, a young assistant professor will start at KAUST with a 7-year contract. In year 6, their dossier will be sent to external referees for evaluation. A faculty committee will then meet to review the file containing the external recommendations. If the referees' finding is positive and is endorsed by the University, the candidate will be promoted to associate professor; otherwise, and just like in US universities we'll give them a year to look for a position elsewhere. Our senior professors get what we call a 'rolling contract': each year their contract automatically gets renewed for 5 years. If a professor has problems and is thought to be underperforming, the contract stops rolling and they have 5 years in which to do better or look for an alternative position.

You received good support from King Abdullah. What are the main benefits that KAUST brings to the region in return?

The expectations are very high. Perhaps initially they were set too high as KAUST cannot change everything in one day. But benefits are starting to accrue. I think that KAUST is changing the academic research environment in the country. The postdoc system that is very common in the US, did not exist here. KAUST already has 350 postdocs and I think others are taking note. This will influence faculty recruitment as the current recruitment process for Saudi universities largely involves the early identification of highly performing undergraduate students who are targeted for a faculty position. They are sent abroad for graduate studies, then they come back to their original university as faculty members. KAUST now shows that it is preferable to let young people develop more in research with additional postdoctoral experience, and only choose them as faculty members when they have demonstrated their ability to perform at a high level. Also, in the past, Saudi universities had relatively limited PhD programmes; in contrast, an increasing number of PhD students are not only graduating from KAUST but they are provided with support to find placements after graduation. I think KAUST already has had a significant influence on the education system and other benefits arising from the research we do are also beginning to show.

What is the percentage of Saudi students?

At present, a majority of our students are international, although Saudi students represent the single largest national contingent on our campus. To increase the proportion of Saudi students, we have created a 'gifted student programme', where we scout throughout Saudi Arabia to identify highly promising high-school students. We select them during their penultimate year of high school, introduce them to the environment of KAUST and, after graduating from high school, we send them to the US for 5 years: one year of preparatory work to help them adapt to the US system and apply to the best universities, followed by four years of undergraduate studies. At present we have about 300 students in this programme, and this will grow to 600, we expect to reach this number soon. Who knows if we will decide to grow further? We already have a trickle of students coming back to us from this programme, and we are delighted with the results.

Today, 67% of our students are enrolled in PhD programmes and the rest are masters students. When we reach maturity with about 1,800–2,000 students we expect that 75% will be in PhD programmes and 25% in masters courses.

What has been the influence of KAUST on industry?

Part of our mission is economic development: we are very interested in introducing the concept of venture-backed start-ups in Saudi Arabia. However the system for funding start-up companies in Saudi Arabia was not well developed and we have worked hard with various government agencies to create a start-up friendly business environment. Now the Kingdom has some venture funds based in part on a western model, which aim to create new businesses. Moreover, at KAUST we also have our own seed fund for our researchers who want to start companies. People can compete to get US$200,000–300,000 seed funding to start testing their ideas within our business incubator. Our goal is to create an environment in which our inventors and entrepreneurs can go all the way from the lab to production facilities.

In your opinion, what are the most important results achieved so far?

We have started a few companies, some of which are already independent today. We also work on larger targets such as the commercialization of a new energy-saving process of desalination, which makes use of the waste heat readily available in power plant or cement factories. In collaboration with a government agency we are pursuing a project that will take us from our own pilot plant to a much larger implementation within a cement factory. Another example of a promising seed-project involves the development of robots that can clean dust and sand from the surface of solar cells without using water. These self-propelled robots move on the surface of the solar panels and remove dust, while being powered by the solar cells themselves.

In our Clean Combustion Center, we are exploring new fuel compositions to increase efficiency and reduce emissions. We are interested in new engine technology, which could run on simple hydrocarbons easily produced in refineries but that do not produce soot and provide maximum efficiency.

Other areas of activity involve the development of novel algorithms to process seismic waves for subsurface exploration and the identification of oil reservoirs, new sensing systems to provide early warnings of possible flood danger in Saudi Arabia, and many other interesting targets.

Where will KAUST be in 5 years time?

I think that our research centres that focus on areas such as water desalination, combustion, catalysis, separation membranes and solar energy will be among the very best in the world. We are also planning to replace our current supercomputer and start a new Center in Extreme Computing. We have other goals that may seem to be very ambitious, but the key thing is that KAUST is here to make a difference, and be counted among the outstanding places where research is done. With the great leadership of our President Jean-Lou Chameau and our excellent faculty, I think that we will make it.