Creating a research culture in Qatar
Executive director of Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) Dr. Abdul Sattar Al Taie talks to The Edge about how QNRF is working to get more Qataris involved in research and how its strategy of encouraging international collaborations seems to be working.
A chemical engineer by training and with extensive professional experience covering both industry and academia, Dr. Abdul Sattar Al Taie has been shaping the direction of the QNRF since its inception in 2006. Looking back on the seven years of his current role as executive director and what he specifically has brought to the funding agency, Dr. Al Taie would rather attribute it to teamwork, saying that only his broad experience has helped in choosing the correct strategic direction for QNRF. However, he does acknowledge that it is his commitment and passion about QNRF that has helped the fund achieve its goal for Qatar, although he would much rather look at it as a pan-Arab initiative.
“I honestly and truly believe that this initiative will serve the Arab world and the region at large because, through this wise investment in research, we really can change the society. We can have a wide-ranging impact because, by virtue of Qatar’s hydrocarbon riches, the basic developmental goals have already been reached. But it is the time for this region to start producing technology and bring back the pattern of Arab contribution to science and technology, as we had in the Middle Ages.”
“I must admit that, at the level of undergraduate research, it makes us very happy to have more than 60 percent Qatari applicants.”
Thus, Dr. Al Taie wants QNRF to generate enough original, grassroots research to be able to reach the goal of generating and producing technology. This is commensurate with the direction of a knowledge-based economy that Qatar has chosen for itself, he says.
According to the most recent figures, 2.8 percent of Qatari gross domestic product (GDP) is dedicated for research funding. This compares favourably with many developed economies of the world. When asked how far into the future Dr. Al Taie foresees the results of this research, he answers that nobody can fix a target for the impact of any research project because research, by its nature, is investigating the unknown and trying to find solutions for challenges that have not yet been addressed. Research, says Dr. Al Taie, is original work, which investigates into a new chapter which are unknown. However, he agrees that the figure of 2.8 percent is a significant national commitment which reflects the political will of HH the Father Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.
“That is why, if you look at the Qatar National Vision 2030, it clearly states that the target is to create a knowledge-based economy within that timeframe. It is a direction, a roadmap which the leadership of the country wants to see actualised by 2030,” he says.
The task ahead for Dr. Al Taie is to be able to utilise the 2.8 percent of GDP that is being earmarked for research. “In a way it is going to be a big challenge to be able to use that huge amount of funding, which could be in the region of USD2 billion (QAR7.28 billion) to USD3 billion (QAR10.92 billion) per annum and it has to be integrated with the existing capacities.”
As of 2013, a total of QAR2.35 billion have been awarded as grants across QNRF’s funding programmes – the Secondary School Research Experience Program (SSREP), the Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP), the Junior Scientists Research Experience Program (JSREP), the National Priorities Research Program (NPRP), and the National Priorities Research Program – Exceptional Proposals (NPRP-EP).
“The idea at QNRF is to give the children enquiry-driven teaching and teaching them the art of asking the right questions.”
The challenge for QNRF, according to Dr. Al Taie, is to improve the ecosystem in Qatar, primarily creating the necessary critical mass of human capital. “You need to have the necessary infrastructure in place, you also need to have the entire enabling environment for research, which will impact dramatically the nation’s economy by diversifying it and creating spin-off companies, all within the knowledge-based economy.”
Qataris in research
Given the predominantly hydrocarbon economy, it is no wonder that the petrochemical sector absorbs the highest number of local employees. When asked how he would ensure more Qataris coming into research, Dr. Al Taie is of the opinion that absorbing Qataris or them becoming more involved in research is a mission in itself. He says, “The graduates studying at universities or abroad will have more attractive places to be drawn into. They invariably join the oil and gas industry, move faster up the career ladder and rightly so, because they have all of the appropriate qualifications. But to go into the research field, one needs to be aware that career growth is at a much slower pace. So for anybody to get involved, they will need to invest more effort. One also needs to understand that the passion for research should be embedded into their lives, and it comes from within. So for these Qatari researchers, we need to appeal to their passion to select research as a rewarding career option.”
Dr. Al Taie outlines the various initiatives that QNRF has created to attract Qatari students at the various levels of elementary, primary and secondary school levels. The idea here, according to Dr. Al Taie, is to give the children the first prerequisite – that of enquiry-driven teaching and teaching them the art of asking the right questions. “It is from this point that we are creating inquisitive minds and then they feel attached to research. We then have the Secondary School Research Experience Program (SSREP) to stoke and hone the research capabilities of school students.”
QNRF follows these school students, and when they go to universities and become undergraduate students, provides further opportunities to engage in research through the Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP). He explains, “I must admit that, especially at the level of undergraduate research, it makes us very happy to have more than 60 percent of the applicants who are Qataris, proving that there is a keen interest, and we will continue to build on that.”
Dr. Al Taie also talks about other initiatives for research and development within QNRF which, in partnership with the Qatar Science Leadership Program (QSLP), is providing internship opportunities for interested young management students to study the structure of research funding administration.
Many countries do not open their research frontiers to others. QNRF has followed a different route, right from its inception. In the words of Dr. Al Taie, “In Qatar, right from the beginning, because we identified the issue of the non-availability of critical mass for research while deciding the funding model of our flagship programme – the NPRP – we realised that we had to attract researchers from abroad, in a way, enticing them while also requiring them to find collaborators from inside Qatar. “Speaking further about the project he says, “This strategy accomplishes two goals: the researchers are in need of research funding, whilst, simultaneously, QNRF is also helping to build the country’s human capital.” This collaborative model is unique, according to Dr. Al Taie, and QNRF is receiving proposals from researchers, or key investigators, from up to six countries for one single project.
“I believe QNRF will serve the Arab world because through this wise investment in research, we can change society.”
“Initially, around 55 percent of the researchers or the investigators were coming from abroad. Now this is on the decline, which means that our model is working.” Another trend that Dr. Al Taie draws attention to is the fact that QNRF supports projects by researchers coming from all sectors, such as academia, government and even the private sector. “This is a big challenge in any society because, if you don’t have the infrastructure or the research culture in place, it is not easy to address this research traffic. We now have over 70 Qatari research offices, from all sectors, not academia alone, registered in our roster and eligible to submit proposals.”
Renewable and solar
Funding for renewables and solar energy generation will see an increase in the coming years. This, says Dr. Al Taie, is in accordance with the Qatar National Research Strategy, which has identified that renewable energy and solar are key to economic diversification, even though Qatar is rich in hydrocarbons.
“This follows the vision of HH the Emir the Father Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani when he declared, at the COP 18 summit in December 2012, a target of two percent of the overall power generation for the country should be derived from solar by 2020. It takes a lot of wisdom to identify this goal when you are a country rich in hydrocarbon resources,” adds Dr. Al Taie.
Identifying the current stage of QNRF as phase two of its development process, Dr. Al Taie says that the focus now is the need to address Qatar’s more specific needs “These challenges of Qatar will be identified not by the researchers themselves, but by the stakeholders in the industry and the government. We are developing a special programme in conjunction with all the other stakeholders, which will address these grand challenges and penetrating the pressing needs of the society of Qatar.”
QAR2.35 billion - QNRF grants through its four flagship programmes.
The fund has supported a number of research projects that are advancing to the stage of patenting the output or are being put forward for patenting. “This is an important achievement, because it is a sure-fire way of feeling the impact of research. It is not only important to have the output of the research per se but you need to take it to the stage of commercialisation, a feat in itself and we currently have around 17 ongoing patent filings.”
Designing and operating an online submission system and database in house is a development that has contributed to the success of QNRF, and the Research Outcome Center (ROC) is another significant advance. “As researchers submit their progress reports, we are developing a system where we can extract and evaluate their output and put it into the public domain. So far, we have captured more than 2500 research papers, generated from QNRF funded projects.”