Research intelligence - Help make the desert bloom

Saudi Arabia wants UK researchers to join its work tackling pressing national problems. Zoe Corbyn reports

May 13, 2010

Are you a researcher interested in helping Saudi Arabia transform desert areas into fish farms? Or could you help it achieve its goal of providing its people with a desalinated water supply powered solely by solar energy?

The Arab kingdom is calling on British scientists to work with it to solve some of its most pressing national problems.

Last month one of its policy advisers, Abdulaziz Al-Swailem, addressed the monthly meeting of the UK-based Research and Development Society.

"We would like top scientists to help us in our strategic plan," said Dr Al-Swailem, senior scientist and policy adviser at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) - Saudi Arabia's national science agency and its national laboratory.

Since 2008, the Saudi government has been ploughing money into science and technology. In the 20 years before that, average annual spending in the area was about 600 million Saudi riyals (£106 million). In 2008 it jumped to 2 billion riyals. The plan over the next five years is to increase annual funding to 8 billion riyals.

The kingdom aspires to be a regional leader in science, technology and innovation by 2015; an Asian power by 2020; and, by 2025, to have completed the transformation into a knowledge-based economy and joined the advanced industrial nations.

Its approach - which was described as "very top down" by one UK delegate at the Research and Development Society event - is based on a national strategic plan that has been in place since 2008.

It identifies 13 priority areas, and Saudi researchers must work in those fields to win government funds.

Research related to water - from desalination to reuse - is the top priority. Other strategic areas include gas and oil, biotechnology, agriculture and healthcare.

In the last of these, the country wants to address priority diseases such as diabetes, which affects almost one in three Saudis.

KACST keeps track of which research projects are being done at which national centres, from universities to hospitals, Dr Al-Swailem explained. This means that UK researchers who wish to join Saudi efforts can easily decide whether to focus on gaps in research or collaborate with Saudi scientists already working in specific areas, he said.

"We are travelling to many countries to find out who is willing to collaborate with our scientists and transfer technologies to Saudi Arabia."

He cited some of the highlights of Saudi science, which range from the launch of satellites to the mapping of camel and date-palm genomes.

"We need to invest more in the activities that impact our society. We eat camels, drink their milk and they are used in sporting activities (camel racing). So investing in camel research makes sense," he said.

In the next decade, the kingdom wants to roll out solar-powered water desalination operations across the country. It also hopes to realise plans for fish farms in the desert, and it has been investing in the research. "We are looking to provide society with another source of protein," Dr Al-Swailem said.

Arabian renaissance?

The role and influence of science in the kingdom and throughout the region is also being supported through other initiatives.

The world is watching the development of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened last year as a major research-intensive institution.

KACST has just signed an agreement with the multinational publisher Springer to underwrite the cost of publishing five new peer-reviewed journals in mid-2011.

In March this year, Nature Publishing Group launched a Nature Middle East website to showcase scientific research from the Arab-speaking world.

The bilingual English/Arabic site is sponsored by another Saudi Arabian institution, the King Abdullah International Medical Research Center at the King Saud Bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences.

Mohammed Yahia, the website's editor, said it is encouraging that Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia have started to focus on science, but he warned that some may be expecting too much, too soon.

"They have the funds, the highest-tech equipment and the will ... but building world-renowned institutions takes time."

He stressed that if they are to achieve their goals, Middle Eastern states must foster a research culture that will attract leading academics from around the world, which it lacks at present.

"It is possible to reproduce that, but it takes time and needs to be nurtured," he said.

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