​​​​​Commencement 2012: Address by Professor Lord Broers

December 14, 4th KAUST Commencement Ceremony, Thuwal

Distinguished Members of the Board, President Choon Fong Shih, Provost Stefan Catsicas, Executive Vice-President Nadhmi Al-Nasr, Senior Vice-President Mohamed Samaha, distinguished members of faculty and staff, honoured members of the third graduating class of KAUST and your families:

It is more than three years since my wife Mary and I had the privilege and pleasure of joining in the opening ceremonies of this great new university. At that time KAUST was no longer just the dream of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, because its magnificent buildings had already transformed this previously empty desert into one of the most spectacular university campuses in the world. The first student class was in the starting blocks and students we spoke to at the opening said how amazed and excited they were to find themselves here in the middle of the desert at the most talked about institution in the university world. But the world at large was only just becoming aware of KAUST's importance, even of its existence. Today a mere three years later that situation has changed dramatically. No more does one have to explain what KAUST is and what it represents. You have already made a mark on the world, so much so that everyone now awaits with eager anticipation the outputs of your new and vibrant institution. And you students, the class of 2012, are a vital component of that output. You have been fortunate to have been here at the beginning - there is nothing more exciting than being amongst the founding members of a new community, especially a university - but the very fact that you are amongst the earliest graduates means that you, and what you achieve, will play a disproportionally large role in building the reputation of KAUST. There is no long list of generations that have gone before you and built a reputation that you may influence but are unlikely fundamentally to change as there are in the world's ancient universities. It is up to you to ensure that KAUST earns a place amongst the world's leading universities and from what I have learned of your achievements I am confident that place will be high and prominent. I offer you my warmest congratulations.

Now let me take you back a moment to medieval times. My own university, Cambridge, was founded 803 years ago, just as the Roman Empire was ending, and as the Roman soldiers were withdrawing from England. It is often said that the medieval scholars that were the first scholars at Cambridge thought that they were building upon the achievements of the classical world of Greece and Rome. But this does not stand up to close examination. It is not apparent that there is any connection between our early Universities and classical Greece or Rome. It is more likely, scholars now say, that more influence came from the legacy of the Islamic schools of learning, whose achievements in philosophy, natural science, mathematics, and medicine outshone anything that was to be found north of the Mediterranean for centuries. It can be argued that the modern university was an Arab invention. For example it was Islamic institutions of learning that first drew together foreign students from many lands into 'nations' or colleges, and - more important still - the idea of the universal validity of qualifications was an Arab concept.

It is widely believed that modern mathematics derives from Arabic roots: anyone who tries to do arithmetic using the Roman positional notation will see what I mean. The great tradition of natural science founded on mathematics, upon which, for example, Cambridge's preeminence in science and technology is built, would have been impossible without the Arab tradition. From their mathematical studies the Arabs derived their expertize in astronomy and navigation, which laid the foundation of systematic sea travel. In the study of medicine and surgery the Arab world was centuries ahead of Europe.

So it is not surprising that once again in history amongst the sand dunes and rolling desert of Saudi Arabia, another great institution of learning and teaching has arisen, this time at the initiative of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. My admiration goes out to him and to what you all, faculty and students, have achieved in realizing his dream.

Let me return to the present. Where do we find ourselves today and what is it that our universities should be emphasing today? Progress in science and engineering over the last two centuries has far exceeded anything that went before. In the developed world human life-span has been increased more than twofold, and no matter where we are in the world the most distant place on our planet is no more than a day's journey away. Most of this would have been unimaginable even one hundred years ago, as would the fact that we can talk to anyone anywhere in the world at any time and see what they are doing. And to a large extent we are using these phenomenal capabilities, and our increasing knowledge of social and behavioural science, in a positive way to spread the benefits of these advances to an increasing fraction of the world's population, and to bring understanding between the peoples of the world.

But the rate at which we are doing this falls far short of what is needed. If we continue at our present pace millions of lives will be lost before these advances reach those most in need. We have to increase our efforts to spread the benefits of modern science around the world. Which in effect means that we need to accelerate the pace of engineering. I have always felt that science and engineering are two sides of the same coin and I was pleased to see that your President and my friend, Professor Choon Fong Shih, made just this point in his recent Convocation Address. At this time we need to place more emphasis on engineering research so that we more rapidly address the problems of the undeveloped world.

This is the reason that in the UK we have launched the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, a new international prize that in monetary terms is 50 % larger than Nobel Prizes. The prize is to recognise engineering accomplishments that have brought major benefit to the world's peoples and thereby to inspire the brightest of the world's young people to become involved in engineering research. The prize has been welcomed around the world and we have been fortunate in gathering together an outstanding Panel of 15 Judges, which includes your President, and Choon Fong I thank you warmly for the important contributions you are making to that Panel.

We have received more than sixty nominations for the Prize from all areas of engineering including information technologies, bio-engineering advances, aeronautics, communications, materials engineering and so on. We will bring the list down to three in January and announce the winner in March next year.

In finishing let me spend a moment looking more broadly at the importance of KAUST to Saudi Arabia and the world. It seems to me that the opportunities for this fortunate new university are not confined to higher education and research. Universities become centres for international communication that in turn leads to understanding between countries and builds bridges between cultures. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's vision has produced an international institution whose influence will extend beyond the advancement of science and technology. KAUST has the potential through the international language of science to do no less than broaden the culture of modern Saudi Arabia, which itself at eighty is a young society, and just as importantly spread an understanding of this modern Islamic society around the world.

Members of the Class of 2012, members of the Faculty, President, distinguished scholars, congratulations on what you have achieved and every good wish for continued success. You are destined to play a role of great importance, not on only here Saudi Arabia and the Middle East but throughout the world.