Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — What’s the world’s most pressing problem that needs to be solved?
I ran into university officials from some 35 countries this week here at the International Exhibition and Conference on Higher Education, and most wanted to talk about their research agenda. The same topics kept coming up, again and again. Water. Energy. Food. Materials. Sustainability.
But water and energy clearly led the discussion, especially in a part of the world with little of one and lots of another (although worried about running out of the latter some day).
Given that many university presidents who come through my office in Washington talk about the same research topics, I asked several university officials at the conference here how they expected to distinguish their research if so many others were working on the same thing.
Simon Evans, a pro vice chancellor at Australia’s University of Melbourne, said his institution was not necessarily in competition with others on those topics as much as they were cooperating on them. He had been in the United States earlier in the week visiting research partners, including Washington University in St. Louis.
During my visit to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, as it’s known, the president, Choon Fong Shih, talked about his institution’s concentration on just three areas of research: energy, food, and water. Mr. Shih sees them as interrelated. He also believes that it’s necessary for universities around the world to work on the same problems because geography and climate often lead to different solutions based on local needs.
Saudi Arabia wants Kaust to become a world-class research institution, but no other elite research university is so focused on just three areas. Kaust is different from many other global research universities in other ways, too. It has only graduate students. And it doesn’t have a medical school.
The visit to Kaust made me wonder: If I came back in 10 years, would it still be so focused on just a few problem areas? Many research universities elsewhere probably started out with a similarly narrow set of concentrations and grew over time as the enterprise (i.e., researchers, administrators, trustees) demanded more.
At the Riyadh conference, many of the sessions focused on the idea that to build a world-class university system, you need differentiation within. But as universities compete with one another for limited public funds or a limited number of students, they all begin to copy each other. Research universities add programs to move up in the rankings. Regional public colleges add graduate programs to look more like flagships, and so on.
Maybe just focusing on one of the world’s biggest problems is enough. Sibrand Poppema, president of the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, told me during a wide-ranging discussion as we sat next to each other on a bus to the airport the other night that, without energy, nothing else is possible. “You need energy for clean water, no matter what method you’re using,” Mr. Poppema maintained. Energy leads his university’s research agenda.
Mr. Poppema first came to Saudi Arabia a few years ago to look for partners on energy. He left with a deal that brings 40 Saudi students to his medical school every year. This year, he signed a deal to provide his medical curriculum to King Faisal University. So even his research agenda is not so singularly focused. His other key area? Healthy aging.