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Science  29 Jul 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6042, pp. 536-537
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6042.536

29 July 2011

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen

International

Competition, Tough Standards, Bring New Vigor to Saudi Science

Several years ago, Saudi Arabia’s leaders were confronted with a challenge: The kingdom had a well-established science sector and strengths in several areas, but while research publications were surging in some Middle Eastern nations, Saudi publication numbers were flat. Science competition was escalating, and they were falling behind.

Commitment to research. The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia’s national science agency, is working with AAAS and others to develop a knowledge economy. Credit: King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology

[CREDIT: KING ABDULAZIZ CITY FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY]

To reverse the trend, the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology—KACST, the Saudi national science agency—committed to an ambitious research and education plan designed to make the kingdom a global research power by 2025. As one element in this effort, KACST asked the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program to help shape a grant competition based on international standards and tough, independent peer review.

Today, research funding has increased, and competition for grants is growing more intense. With the support of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia is pressing ahead with extensive new science-related construction and projects. And the KACST-AAAS partnership is expanding into important new areas.

“From the start, we decided that... we should raise the bar quite high so that we get our researchers used to tough competition and strong evaluation,” said Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud, KACST’s vice president for research institutes. “And we chose AAAS because of its experience in this—it is a leading science organization and it has done evaluations like this in the United States and other places. We think that this is the right organization to work with.”

The AAAS-KACST relationship reflects the kingdom’s broad science ambitions and growing international recognition of the venture. It has established partnerships with corporate giants, leading universities, and top scholars. It built the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a state-of-the-art, coeducational research center, to serve as an engine of innovation.

AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, while serving as Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, delivered a keynote address at the university’s inauguration ceremonies in 2009. Today, the influential plant biologist is a distinguished professor there.

KACST was founded in 1977. In 2002, the kingdom’s Council of Ministers approved a national S&T policy, and in 2007 the science agency adopted its National Science, Technology, and Innovation Plan.

Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud

Turki, who earned a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University, explained the plan’s goal in an interview: With investments, partnerships, and initiatives to develop the skills of the kingdom’s 26 million people, Saudi leaders want to transform their oil economy to a knowledge economy. The plan focuses on more than a dozen areas of research and advanced technology, from water desalination and solar energy to nanotechnology, biotechnology, and space science.

The role of the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program in Saudi Arabia is a natural extension of its work in 30 U.S. states and several foreign nations since its founding in 1996. It assembles teams of scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and innovators, then provides clients with expert peer review and guidance in strategic planning, research infrastructure, technology-based economic development, and related areas.

The KACST-AAAS collaboration dates to 2008, said Edward Derrick, former head of the Research Competitiveness Program and now director of the association’s Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs. A former high-ranking University of Michigan administrator had close ties with Saudi science leaders who were beginning to implement their plan, and he knew of AAAS’s work in the state. He helped arrange a meeting.

“They had decided on making these investments in research projects,” Derrick said. “They needed a process to get these proposals peer-reviewed externally, in an unbiased way. And I said: ‘We can do that.’”

Each 2-year grant totals about $500,000, with protocols set by the Saudi science agency. The first batch of proposals, about 200 in all, arrived at AAAS in the autumn of 2008. After 2 years, Derrick’s team had put 1,000 proposals from more than a dozen Saudi universities through peer review. Last winter, there was another batch of 300, and spring brought 500 more.

At the beginning, Turki said, many Saudi researchers were cool to the idea of outsiders reviewing their work. But the competition has continued, and researchers have gotten a better sense of the process and the standards. While many of the early proposals were worthy of funding, Derrick said, proposals now are often more sophisticated.

KACST last year asked AAAS to help assess the kingdom’s core facilities program, looking for ways to create synergy by bringing diverse disciplines together, support commercialization of discoveries, and enhance efficiency. And AAAS in June agreed to manage peer review of research proposals for a Saudi organization that studies Alzheimer’s disease.

The next step, said current program director Mark Milutinovich, may be for KACST to evaluate what the grants are accomplishing—and discussions are under way on the role AAAS might have in that process.

In Turki’s view, the collaboration is paying clear dividends. “We have established a certain level of quality that everyone appreciates, and it is helping to turn around the research capability in the kingdom,” he said. “We are very much interested in keeping this relationship and expanding the cooperation.”

Agriculture

Improved Seed, Ecological Farming Needed to Enhance Food Security

Modern genetic tools and the most effective science-based ecological farming practices are needed if modern agriculture is to feed 9 billion people by 2050, experts said at a AAAS forum.

Pamela C. Ronald

Already 40% of the Earth—an area about the size of South America—is cleared for farming and little arable land remains, said Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis. “Agriculture needs our collective help and all appropriate tools,” she said, to feed the swelling world population without further degrading the environment.

It’s a challenge that Ronald and her husband Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, describe in their 2008 book, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. “We believe that the polarizing debates on seed technologies versus farming practices are distracting from the key challenge—a healthy and productive agricultural system,” she said.

Ronald delivered the annual Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture on 21 June at AAAS. Established in 2010, the lecture honors Riley, a prominent 19th-century entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is endowed by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation.

AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff, a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University, posed a provocative question to a panel of experts following Ronald’s lecture: Can farming double its productivity in the coming decades while reducing its ecological impact?

Ronald detailed the mounting challenges for meeting this goal: erosion, lack of fresh water, pesticide poisoning of farm workers, dwindling rural investment, and shifting rainfall and drought patterns due to global climate change.

These factors have driven farmers to expand their farms into previously uncultivated areas, Ronald said, “destroying vast quantities of wilderness and wildlife each year.”

Increased use of new seed and plant varieties, including those developed through genetic engineering, can help increase productivity while limiting negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of agriculture, Ronald said. She counted genetically engineered cotton in Arizona and papayas in Hawaii among the successes of this approach, citing dramatic reductions in insecticide use and disease among these crops.

“After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of nearly 2 billion acres planted,” Ronald said, “not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment has resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.”

Resistance to this technology is beginning to abate, especially as the links between regional food crises and political instability become more apparent, said panelist L. Val Giddings, a senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “One of the most important barriers to overcome is dogma,” Giddings said. “The people will not tolerate being kept hungry.”

But planting of higher-yielding genetically improved seeds that require less water and insecticide is not sufficient to address all agricultural challenges. In Ronald’s view, sustainability can be maximized only by combining the use of improved seed with ecologically sound agricultural practices.

“The key point is that no matter how powerful the seed technology,” she said, “the seed must still be integrated with other strategies to manage the diverse spectrum of diseases and pests that attack a crop.”

Joining Giddings on the expert panel were Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute; John D. Hardin Jr., a Purdue University trustee and owner of Hardin Farms; and Michael T. Clegg of the University of California, Irvine. The lecture was planned in cooperation with the World Food Prize Foundation and was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Case IH; DuPont; Mars, Incorporated; and the Norman Borlaug Institute for Inter-national Agriculture. —Warren Leary

Publications

AAAS Books Promote Public Policy Partnerships

Researchers searching for ways to influence U.S. science policy—and to prevent crippling cuts to the federal R&D budget—must learn how to cooperate with Congress to become effective advocates, according to a new guide published by AAAS.

Working with Congress: A Scientist’s Guide to Policy, produced by AAAS’s Office of Government Relations, provides detailed information on congressional procedures and history. Now in its third edition, the guide emphasizes practical advice on developing and maintaining influential relationships with lawmakers and their staff, and how technology and social media in particular are changing communications with policy-makers.

“With Congress looking for ways to reduce the deficit by decreasing discretionary spending, now more than ever it is critical for scientists to communicate to policy-makers on why R&D is a crucial investment and why their research matters,” said Joanne Carney, AAAS’s government relations director.

Two other recent publications examine the intersection between public policy and science education:

Measuring Diversity: An Evaluation Guide for STEM Graduate Program Leaders was developed by AAAS Education and Human Resources and the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. The guide is a resource for universities to evaluate their programs to recruit and retain minority graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The Role of Public Policy in K-12 Science Education explores the influence of science education researchers on federal, state, and local education policy. Edited by George DeBoer, deputy director of AAAS’s Project 2061 science literacy initiative, the volume also discusses the role of policy-makers in developing science curricula.

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