Saudi Money Shaping U.S. Research

Riyadh is dumping money on American researchers, diverting their efforts from projects that could harm the Kingdom's energy interests.

Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are expected to run dry in fifty years. This prospect has encouraged the Saudis to go shopping for cutting-edge science that can secure the kingdom’s future—at elite American research universities.

King Abdullah and Saudi Aramco are spending tens of billions on technology research to make the oil last longer and develop other energy resources that future Saudi generations can someday export.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened its doors in 2009 and already has lavished more than $200 million on top U.S. university scientists. Stanford, Cornell, Texas A&M, UC Berkeley, CalTech, Georgia Tech—all are awash in new millions of Saudi cash for research directed at advancing solutions for Saudi energy and water needs. The new university, known as KAUST, has similar partnerships with scientists at Peking University and Oxford.

Many American universities and their scientists, lured by research grants of as much as $25 million, have jumped at the chance to partner with KAUST. Some of those scientists do research at their universities here and spend a small part of their time in Saudi Arabia creating “mirror” labs.

The arrangement with KAUST raises novel and largely unaddressed issues for American universities. With the United States determined to become energy self-sufficient, what are the ramifications of having scientists at top university labs—many of them recipients of U.S. government research dollars—devoting their efforts to energy pursuits selected by Saudi Arabia?

KAUST funding for U.S. scientists is geared to helping the Saudis cut their own heavy oil use at home to lengthen the life of their much more lucrative exports. It’s aimed at getting more oil per well with new technology, finding new reserves and developing new methods of carbon capture for continued use of fossil fuels. American scientists are also working to develop solar technology, including solar panels that can survive sandstorms and power desalinization of the Red Sea for water and electricity.

Among the areas KAUST is not funding is research on biofuels—which compete with oil—except for work on Red Sea algae.

KAUST’s mission statement lays out a plan to rapidly become a top international institution that “will play a crucial role in the development of Saudi Arabia and the world.” KAUST’s goal is not only to find new energy sources, but to create a Silicon Valley-like commercial hub of jobs and innovation. King Abdullah provided a whopping $20 billion endowment to launch the graduate-level research institution, and named the Saudi oil minister chairman of the board of trustees. Aramco built the campus, funds current operating costs and provided administrative leadership.

“It’s an important research lab for Aramco with a university façade,” said Alyn Rockwood, one of several scientists who say they want KAUST to succeed but believe a corporate ethos is stifling academic autonomy.

Some have bridled over changes that require them to get administrative approval in spending their research funds. KAUST officials declined interview requests, but in a Science magazine story late last year that cited some of those complaints, the former Aramco executive who runs KAUST, Nadhmi al-Nasr, acknowledged that he comes from a “top-down” corporate culture and is adjusting to academia.

Scientific research at universities is a key driver of debate over how to meet global energy needs. Often of late, it is the research itself that gets debated. Dueling studies about the environmental impact of biofuels and the safety of hydraulic fracking for natural gas has spurred charges and countercharges about the role of commercial interests biasing the science, for example.

The impact of published studies is not lost on the leaders at KAUST. In fact, the top of its mission statement sets out very specific goals for getting its research published in “prestigious professional journals.” By that measure, KAUST-funded scientists have been highly successful, with stacks of prestigious journal publications and patents to their credit.

One of them is William J. Koros, a Georgia Tech professor who was awarded a $10 million research grant for his work there on hydrocarbons. “They are very generous to home universities,” he said. Koros is working on technology that would help capture impurities from natural gas. “The Middle East is loaded with natural gas. They viewed this as a world problem that intersected with their interests,” he said.

Experts in issues related to academic research funding say KAUST’s relationship with U.S. scientists is unusual, posing pitfalls as well as opportunities.

“I don’t think there is a framework for dealing with foreign governments or corporations who invest in American universities to compete,” Tufts professor Sheldon Krimsky, who has studied conflicts of interest in academic research. Where American researchers get money does not mean the science produced will be anything less than honest. But, he said, scientific inquiry is shaped by the scope of the questions asked.

James Luyten, former director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, sees the creation of a specific research agenda as a problem at KAUST. KAUST awarded Woods Hole $25 million and Luyten spent three years helping set up their Red Sea research center.

“They are using their money to limit and constrain where people put their energy as research scientists,” said Luyten, something that corporate sponsors often try to achieve by carefully choosing which science to fund and which to ignore.

Pages