By: Dr. Athar Osama
Muslim-Science.Com met with Dr. Mohammed ibn Ibrahim Al-Suwaiyel at his offices at King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology (KACST) – Saudi Arabia’s equivalent of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the country’s National Laboratories, and the National Science Funding entity all combined in one. Dr. Al-Suwaiyel is the de-facto Minister of Science for the Kingdom and works directly at the pleasure of King Abdullah – the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Established in 1977 as the Saudi Arabian National Centre for Science and Technology (SANCST) and renamed in 1985, KACST has an important role to play the Kingdom’s march towards becoming an integral part of the global scientific and technological enterprise. As the lead implementation agency, KACST has presided over the implementation of the first Saudi Arabian National Science and Technology Plan (NSTP) – a 5-year $2.2 billion (8 billion Saudi Riyals) investment – launched in 2007. Recently, NSTP has been extended until 2015 with double the investment ($4.4 billion or 16 billion Saudi Riyals) planned in the next 5 years.
Muslim-Science.Com’s discussion with Dr. Al-Suwaiyel focused on the Kingdom’s goals and aspirations and its progress in the realm of science and technology. The discussion also drifted to the more philosophical and pragmatic issues of funding for science, its relationship with the society, and desirable objectives in the context of Saudi Arabia and the broader Muslim World. Dr. Al-Suwaiyel was very open, forthcoming, and insightful in his answers and very gracious with his time as he discussed each of these topics in some detail. Muslim¬Science.com found him appropriately reflective when confronted with tough questions and open to new ideas. This interview is being produced below for the benefit of Muslim-Science.Com’s audience.
Muslim Science (MS): Please tell us something about how KACST started and what it has evolved into?
Mohammed ibn Ibrahim Al-Suwaiyel (MIS): KACST started as a fairly humble institution. It was the research grants office, Science and Technology database access provider and the regulator and service provider of the internet in the Kingdom. Today, it has become the Office of the Science Advisor, the de-facto Science Ministry, the National Laboratories, and the key Science Funding body in the Kingdom. It is kind of like OSTP, Science Ministry, National Laboratories, and National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US combined. This is a very powerful position to be in as we are in a fortunate position to lead the country’s science and innovation agenda. During these years, KACST has also spun-off a number of activities that it initially started. For example, the Internet service provider and regulator role is now gone to the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC). The formation of King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) will take an important part of our energy research portfolio within a newly formed entity that could pursue it with much greater focus. In essence, KACST has acquired the unique distinction of being an incubator of scientific organisations in the country.
MS: The National Science and Technology Plan (NSTP) – how important is that to KACST’s role within the Kingdom?
MIS: The National Science and Technology Plan (NSTP) is absolutely central and critical to what we are trying to do at KACST. The NSTP represents the execution of the vision of creating a society that is science, technology and knowledge-driven and reducing the dependence of the Kingdom on oil. The approval of NSTP in 2002 by the Council of Ministers and launching of the first implementation plans totaling SAR 8 billion over five years demonstrates a quantum shift in the thinking of Saudi Arabia’s leadership towards a realisation that science and innovation is the only way to the future. The recent doubling of this level of investment to SAR 16 billion over the following 5 years forms a new curve for Science and Technology advance in the kingdom and keeps pace with the current global directions to construct a knowledge-based modern national economy.
MS: What are the aspirations of NSTP? What is it that the Kingdom aspires to achieve at the end of this?
MIS: We have identified our targets very clearly. These have been elucidated in 5-year increments as the Kingdom gradually enhances and improves its capabilities. The first five years (2005-2010) were dedicated to creating a science, technology, and innovation (STI) infrastructure within the Kingdom. I believe that this is the first time the Kingdom has taken science and innovation policy with a serious commitment. We think we have some catching up to do. In the second five years (2010-2015) we would like Saudi Arabia to become an STI leader within the GCC region. The third five year plan (2015-2020) would be dedicated to the quest of becoming an STI leader in Asia. In the fourth five year plan (2020¬2025) we will – insha Allah (God willing) – be an STI leader at the global stage.
MS: These are very ambitious targets, given where the Kingdom has started from and the competition it faces in a dynamic changing world. Do you believe the Kingdom will be able to achieve these? How are you doing right now?
MIS: We believe these are ambitious – particularly our goal of becoming one of the STI leaders in Asia and the world – but we think they are do-able. We are already a bit ahead of the curve as far as far as our own targets are concerned. At the end of our first five years, we have not only built critical infrastructure but are also an established leader in the region. Several universities in Saudi Arabia are doing better than those in the neighbourhood and there is massive investment in new universities, in particular, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) north of Jeddah, and Princess Nora bint Abdurrahman University in Riyadh are exciting projects. However, this was the easy part. The challenge we face in becoming an established player in Asia is going to be much much harder than this and we fully realise this. So, we have a head-start and we are going to do our best to achieve these.
MS: How do you measure the success of what you’re trying to do? When and how would you know if you have become a leader within a particular group of countries? Do you look at number of scientists, papers published, patents filed? Do you have a measurement framework in place that allows you to measure progress?
MIS: Papers and patents are useful indicators but I don’t believe they capture the whole story. These indicators are a bit biased towards more “advanced” countries where science and innovation is already a part of the economic mainstream of the society.
We believe that we need to measure the success of Saudi Arabia’s science policy in terms of the value it is able to deliver to the life of the common man and the socio-economic development of the society. While the classical indicators are going to be important, I believe we need to take a very comprehensive approach towards measuring the impact of our programmes to account for the level of development of the country. For example, in order to measure our science awareness programmes, we would like to measure how many students we were able to attract to the sciences.
We also have a number of very important programmes designed to solve several national problems, such as, water shortage. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest user of water desalination technology and yet we do not produce even an iota of the technology. We import it from abroad. We would like to become self-sufficient and then a world leader in desalination technology. We have a useful collaborative research programme going on with IBM to develop solar and nano-technology solutions to water desalination problems. We are working to bring our own technology into commercial use. Within due-course we would like all desalination plants in Saudi Arabia to use locally developed technologies to reduce our dependence on foreign technology. We also want to be a world leader and an exporter of desalination technology and equipment around the world.
I believe that these are much better indicators of our success than the number of papers produced or patents filed. Unless science can solve national problems and bring relief to the common man on the street its utility is, at best, marginal within our context.
MS: Commercialisation is a hard one, isn’t it? How do you hope to solve the perennial problem of commercialising technology?
MIS: You are right. This is the key challenge. I would be the first to admit that Saudi Arabia has not done very well in this realm. Even other Muslim countries have struggled with operationalising research commercialisation in a meaningful way. We have to do our part in building the infrastructure to support industry’s involvement with research. With certain projects, it is a bit easier. For example, we are working with the desalination and power authorities to experimentally install our desalination system. But creating broader participation of the industry will be critical to success. KACST is experimenting with incubators as a means to commercialise local innovation and technology. We are working on it and are witnessing positive signs.
MS: You talked about creating awareness. How do you sell all this to key stakeholders in the Kingdom? How do you make the case for science to Saudi Leadership?
MIS: You’ve raised another very critical issue in Muslim World. My job is to make a case for investment in science and technology to the Saudi Leadership and also to the people. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is very cognizant of the role science and innovation can play in Saudi Arab and how critical this is for the future of the country. He is also very shrewd in communicating this to those around him and to get things done. When I began this job, I made sure that the King was fully briefed about KACST and the local science and technology capabilities. I have also worked hard to communicate our successes to top leaders, to the members of the Parliament – the Shura Council – and to the general public. We have made sure that the Ministry of Finance is supportive of what we are doing and has been appreciative of our role.
I am deeply cognizant of the fact that science’s future rests on developing these coalitions of support. Until we’re able to deliver results we must manage the expectations of our key stakeholders wisely.
MS: Some of these ideas are really fascinating. You are clearly taking the task of generating support for science, planning, and execution very systematically. I want to switch gears a bit to OIC and Saudi Arabia’s role in the science policy and politics of OIC.
MIS: Saudi Arabia takes its responsibilities towards the Muslim Ummah very seriously. One of the reasons that we’ve decided to invest so much in science is because of our highly visible position within OIC. Saudi Arabia is the birth place of Islam and to have it backward and lagging in science and innovation is simply not acceptable. We believe we have to set an example here.
MS: What about collaborations with OIC member countries? Saudi Arabia hasn’t done very well on that account, although you have a number of collaborations with Western countries. Do you not see value in working with Islamic countries?
MIS: That is not entirely true. We have collaborated with Islamic countries in the past and are open to doing so again as well. However, we have to look at every arrangement from our own national interest. More often than not, our brotherly Muslim countries see us as the financing agent and not as a research partner. We would definitely like to consider – in fact, prefer – working with countries where our interests will also be served alongside the collaborative intent.
MS: Dr. Suwaiyel, it was a pleasure meeting with you and Muslim-Science.Com wishes you and Saudi Arabia all the best in what you’re seeking to achieve.
Interviewed by: Dr. Athar Osama is a London based a science and innovation policy consultant and the Director of Middle East and Asia for an international technology commercialisation, consulting, and policy firm. He is also a Visiting Fellow at Boston University’s Pardee Centre for Study of Longer Range Future and the founder of Muslim-Science.com.