KAUST President: We strive to support the economic transformation under the Saudi Vision 2030

KAUST President Tony Chan speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper at the HQ in London, UK.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Tony Chan speaks about the university's top four priorities.

Sporting a baseball cap with KAUST's logo and a brightly colored pin, Tony Chan, president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), spoke to the World Economic Forum for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Amman about 'the secret' behind the success of this higher education institution, which he has been heading for a year now.

In a special interview, Chan spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat in the British capital, London, about the 'young' university's goals. Over the past few years, the university gained a global reputation, as it continues to contribute to Saudi Arabia's rapid economic and technological development in the context of the Saudi Vision 2030.

Often nicknamed the 'Mayor of KAUST' in reference to the university's campus which includes 7000 people from 111 nationalities, Chan did not hide his enthusiasm about KAUST's achievements, the unique research initiatives it is preparing to launch, and its close collaborations with revolutionary projects such as Neom City, Qiddiya, and the Red Sea tourism project, as well as cooperation with giants such as Aramco and SABIC. Chan said that the university's objectives are fully in line with those of the kingdom in all its dimensions, and the university continues to work relentlessly to contribute to the realization of the programs and objectives of the Saudi Vision 2030.

A University Ahead of Its Time

Chan, who previously headed the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for a decade, attended the opening ceremony of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology on September 23, 2009. He was mesmerized by the vision of the late King Abdullah which he described as 'ahead of its time'. KAUST was established with the aim of developing distinctive and collaborative research that would be integrated with university education, and as a catalyst for innovation, and the dissemination of scientific knowledge and its applications towards economic development and social prosperity in Saudi Arabia and the world, with particular emphasis on strategic research of global importance in four key areas: energy, food, water and the environment.

King Abdullah wanted the university to be a 'beacon of knowledge and a bridge of communication between civilizations and peoples for the benefit of all the peoples of the world'. Two years after its establishment, Chan was invited to join the university's board of directors, where he remained for the next six years, and during which time he became familiar with the university and its objectives. According to Chan, what distinguishes KAUST is its commitment to high research specializing in science and engineering, the international character of the university and its interest in quality over volume.

Chan pointed out that one of the university's four priorities is to fully align with the objectives of the Saudi Vision 2030 and the strategic priorities of the kingdom, as well as strengthening faculty and students, and supporting innovation and economic growth.

Leading the Way Towards Achieving the 2030 Objectives

Chan believes the university's vision and goals are fully in line with the objectives of the Saudi Vision 2030, which he reviewed several times before becoming president of KAUST. Chan identified the most important aspects to which the university can contribute, and he focused on one key objective of the Saudi Vision 2030: to diversify the economy and reduce dependence on oil. Chan believes this can be achieved through innovation and technology. "This is what the university was created for," he said. Chan also spoke of improving educational levels in preparation for the future through a comprehensive and integrated plan, and he went on to point out that the best way to achieve this is to train human capital, particularly the youth. This has also been set as one of the university's main goals.

Chan also discussed the cooperation between KAUST and the projects initiated by Saudi Vision 2030, most notably Neom City, the Red Sea global tourism project, and Qiddiya, the massive cultural entertainment project. Chan spoke of the Neom City in particular, which he had visited several times with the project's chief executive, engineer Nazmi Al-Nasr, who was appointed interim president of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology before Chan joined as its president. Chan said that the Neom project aims to build a smart and sustainable city, which intersects with the university's research foundations that include the energy, environment, water and food sectors – with the digital revolution being added soon. Chan pointed out that all projects born from the womb of the Saudi Vision 2030 need sustainable energy from a variety of sources, adding that this is the university's specialty.

Last year, the establishment of a Center for Excellence in Science was announced. The center specializes in research for the Neom project within KAUST, and it aims to be a center for research and education, and offer solutions that support the project and contribute to the advancement of national development in areas such as sustainable energy, Seismology, water desalination, artificial intelligence, massive data, and sensor equipment.

Innovation and Economic Growth

The second key objective of the university, as Chan explains it, is divided into two parts: the first is to promote scientific research and the second to support innovation. According to Chan, the university has largely succeeded in achieving the first part by putting KAUST and the kingdom on the world map of higher education. "Today, if you go to Imperial College in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), you'll discover that they know us. They'll even tell you about their partnerships with us."

Regarding the second part of the objective. i.e. supporting innovation and economic growth, Chan explained that the university incubated several startups, three of which were represented at the tenth session of the World Economic Forum for the Middle East and North Africa, held in Amman, Jordan. Chan spoke admiringly of one of these promising companies, FalconViz, which uses state-of-the-art imaging and modeling techniques to preserve the region's most important landmarks.

KAUST's third key objective under Chan's leadership is to expand the existing 150-member faculty and the 1000 student base (70% to 80% of whom are doctoral students, the rest master's students). "We can increase these numbers by 50%. We also have 400 to 500 doctoral fellows from international universities."

Local and Global Partnerships

To explain the fourth objective, Chan said the university is striving to build global partnerships with universities and giant corporations that fit its mission. He gave the example of the head of Imperial College, Alice Gast, who is currently a member of KAUST's Board of Trustees. He also spoke of his relationship with the distinguished leaders of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Chan said he believes this trend is also consistent with the kingdom's overall alignment with the Saudi Vision 2030, whose framework supports openness to the world.

At the corporate level, KAUST is working on partnerships with Aramco, the world's largest oil company, and SABIC. This in addition to other international multinationals who are seeking Saudi skills to understand the local market and master new technologies in line with the fourth industrial revolution.

Keeping Pace with the Digital Revolution

The first question Chan asked upon taking on the presidency of KAUST was about the most important technological innovation the world has witnessed over the past 10 years. The purpose of Chan's question was to ensure that KAUST's scientific research keeps pace with the fourth industrial revolution, and supports the university in its quest towards achieving the goals of the Saudi Vision 2030. In this context, KAUST is preparing to launch a digital initiative that includes artificial intelligence, cyber security and robotic science. "We can use artificial intelligence in many fields, such as health, energy, engineering, and more," said Chan. As such, KAUST is launching a smart healthcare initiative aimed at harnessing personal medical data, developing sophisticated medical devices, bioengineering, and collaborating with the King Faisal Specialist Hospital – which is very interested in advanced medical technology.

Towards achieving these two initiatives, KAUST has launched a campaign to recruit Saudi and international expertise. The university is also working to establish a research unit to share experiences and make them available to the various sectors in which it operates. KAUST also invests in Saudi manpower, with one of its most prominent initiatives being the KAUST program for gifted students. This program is a fully funded scholarship offering outstanding Saudi high school graduates the opportunity to pursue their undergraduate studies in science and technology at a number of leading universities in the United States. The ultimate objective of the program is to contribute to the university's mission in developing the kingdom's scientific infrastructure and guiding it towards building a knowledge-based economy.

Challenges or Opportunities?

The biggest challenge facing KAUST, according to Chan, is that all big companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and even Karim are seeking to attract the same young talent as KAUST. To meet this challenge, the university is turning the challenge into an opportunity by looking for niche sectors where it excels. The largest industry in Saudi Arabia today is energy; i.e. oil, gas and chemicals. The largest oil company in the world today is Saudi Aramco. This allows KAUST, through its cooperation with this giant company, to provide opportunities not available anywhere else.

The second challenge the university is turning into an opportunity is using artificial intelligence in science and engineering to protect the Red Sea and generate better solar energy, and more.

Chan believes the university's funding model is unique in that it allows it to seek solutions to complex and long-term challenges.

Chan, previously Assistant Director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in charge of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate, from 2006 to 2009, said that when we look at MIT's achievements over the decade since its establishment, we will find that it has not achieved as much as KAUST has over the same period of time. Since its establishment, KAUST has been a pioneer in the kingdom and the Arab region as a whole. Today, this university maintains its status as an institution that keeps pace with the remarkable development process witnessed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as launched by Saudi Vision 2030.