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.

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.