Unethical science or just another gold rush?

When did my chain-smoking leftist Italian friend move to Saudi Arabia? I wondered. I had just received his recent preprint, in which he cites King Saud University  (KSU) as his affiliation.  The answer to my query was even more colorful than I thought.  Add KSU or KAU (King Abdul Aziz University) as a second affiliation on your papers, and earn $72,000 a year. OK, you may need to spend a week or two a year on their campuses, but that requirement is flexible. The main one is that your name must be on the Institute for Scientific Information’s (ISI’s) list of highly cited authors. Darn!

But this is just the beginning of the story as a real gold rush is emerging in that part of the world. An Austrian friend asked me recently to come visit him at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), where he will be lecturing while on a 2-year leave of absence from Cambridge. An Australian friend made sure to let me know about the “purchasing power” (for quality papers of course) of the Saudi-funded mathematical journal that he is now editing. Even more astonishing –to those who know the person– was the highly unlikely news of a prominent American mathematical physicist leaving his job in ETH, Zurich for Arabia.

Is this the dawn of a new gold rush for scientists, or will we soon be calling them the new mercenaries and pontificating on whether all this is “ethical or unethical science”? A little bit of both I guess, as this Science article seems to reveal (besides some dirt).

One commenter was outraged. “How could these western distinguished professors sell their souls for a few Saudi petro-dollars?”

Equally amusing is to see what fellow mathematician, Neil Robertson, said in justifying his post-retirement income.  “It’s just capitalism. They have the capital and they want to build something out of it.” He even links it to a higher calling (a mission for his later years away from Columbus, Ohio?). “I’m thinking this might be a breath of fresh air in a closed society,” he says.

Indeed, why not and why should academics be held to a higher standard for human greed than those in other professions? What distinguishes this phenomenon –though political and existential factors were more powerful an incentive then, than the financial one– from the exodus of European scholars to the US during the last century? What makes it different from watching the top US universities raiding each other’s academics, and consequently their awards, their citations and their prestige?

Some point to the unethical implications of seeing KAU quickly climbing the ladder of the world University rankings ahead of more deserving institutions. But isn’t it what all universities do these days?

Another commenter brings up a totally new line of thought: “Money well spent. Indeed, the return on any dollar diverted from military and arm spending in the Kingdom toward education will yield huge return on investment.” Good one!

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2 Responses to Unethical science or just another gold rush?

  1. Anon says:

    I wonder if you could review the names you have put on your blog entry for the institutions you mention. KAUST stands for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This is a purely merit-based university that only employs full-time faculty who devote 100% of their time to the university. There are no adjunct positions available at KAUST. The universities you refer to are King Abdulaziz University (KAU) and King Saud University which are doing what you state. Please could you change all references for KAUST to KAU. Thanks.

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