Luyten said he was under “enormous pressure” to devote resources to algae biofuels research, for example, but was discouraged from research on the effect of carbon emissions on Red Sea coral. “A group of us wanted to hold a symposium on climate change,” he said, but the university president rejected the idea. “We were told that was not in the interest of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
KAUST reserves the right to review studies before publication, something that is not generally done by U.S. universities, though scientists and administrators who’ve worked at KAUST say so far it has been pro forma.
American universities, faced with a shrinking pool of research dollars at home, have welcomed the Saudi partnership as a way to fund important science, including in the area of carbon capture, an issue that has global implications. Creating jobs and educating the Saudi populace is seen as vital to making theirs a stable society, something that may benefit the rest of the world, though aiding a repressive regime has drawn objections from faculty on a few U.S. campuses. To bring in foreign scientists, the Saudi king has made KAUST an oasis of modernity, where male and female students are allowed to mix.
Several prominent scientists said KAUST has the resources to have a big impact on scientific research.
“I don’t think there is any university in the world that has as advanced equipment as they have,” said Stanford solar cell researcher Mike McGeehee. He spent a month helping set up a lab at KAUST and leads Stanford’s Center for Advanced Molecular Photovoltaics, created with a $25 million KAUST grant.
Science at KAUST is directed more toward commercial application. “Things are different there. There’s a tighter connection to industry,’’ said McGeehee.
“You can’t do certain kinds of research at US universities—you can’t have industry come in and do experiments because federal dollars are paying for it, and you can’t give one company an advantage over another. But there, the king says I’m paying for it, I want [commercial] spin-offs.”
American university relationships with corporate research sponsors are a hotly debated topic, notably because of controversy over biased drug studies paid for by pharmaceutical companies. Many universities encourage professors to find corporate as well as government funders, but they keep those contractual arrangements confidential, including terms for industry access to research as well as intellectual-property arrangements. The American Association of University Professors is completing a major study on how universities should structure industry relationships.
To date, in fact, KAUST’s website has publicized its grants to a greater degree than the U.S. universities and scientists receiving them. Universities here have reported very few of the KAUST grants and contracts to the U.S. Department of Education, which maintains a public database of foreign funds to American colleges.
AAUP president Cary Nelson, who is working on the report on corporate-sponsored research, said he was not previously aware of the KAUST grants. “What you are looking at is the touchiest area. All funded research should be reviewed by faculty senate or faculty committee. It should be transparent,” he said.
Cornell University campus publications contain more information of its work with KAUST than is available from other universities, but even there administrators are circumspect about terms of Cornell’s $28 million in KAUST grants and contracts.
“It’s not public,” said Celia Szczepura, administrator of the KAUST-Cornell Center for Energy and Sustainability. As for the work Cornell does that may end up aiding the Saudi oil industry, she said: “KAUST isn’t an industry sponsor—it’s a university. What they share with Aramco and what they don’t, you’d have to ask KAUST.”
But separating the Saudi king’s new university from the kingdom’s oil industry is all but impossible. For now, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum interests have a key role in choosing what energy research is pursued by some of America’s leading scientists.
Susan Schmidt is a longtime Washington journalist and a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.