A small emirate with big-picture plans

Published online 21 March 2014

Mohammed Yahia

In 2006, Qatar announced plans to reach an annual science expenditure of 2.8% of its GDP – a greater proportion than that of any other Arab state. Since then the country has been honing its research objectives to meet its needs and challenges.

In November 2013, the Qatar Foundation (QF) announced that the country would target its research activities and funding toward three main challenges: water security, energy security and cyber security.

Nature Middle East talked to Thomas Zacharia, the executive vice president of Research and Development in QF, about the country's new vision and how it hopes to attract international researchers while developing the capacity of local science.

Tell us more about Qatar Foundation's new science strategy.

I think it's more a refinement of the research plan. There had already been a plan for this institute, but to pursue truly world-class research, the responsibility of expending the country's resources in order to achieve an objective requires much more strategy and a framework.

So, in 2013, we built on the national research forum and the national strategy from what we had. There was already very good research, but we felt there was a disconnect between the ambitions of diversifying the economy with the scope and scale of the research. We readjusted the scope and scale and also focused the research in a particular way in order to achieve the goals.

So the main thrust of the change is to make research more focused on Qatar and problems in the country?

The big difference is that the problem sets have been identified based on the needs of Qatar. However, if you look at the grand challenges, it would be hard to argue that they are not the same as those of the region as well as the entire world.

We have tried to create knowledge with purpose and intent to solve real problems that this country faces, that this region faces. But with the intent that as we do this, Qatar will leap forward in some technology areas and the economy will be diversified.

Are you trying to build an institute like the King Abdullah University of Science And Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia?

There are great synergies and similarities but there also fundamental differences between KAUST and QF. KAUST, in my view, is trying to build a great research university for Saudi Arabia and the region. And it's fantastic. Why? Because we need the graduate and PhD students they produce to come and work with us in Qatar and be offered interesting promise and great research and infrastructure.

The difference is that Qatar Foundation is trying to build up our research in terms of institutes. It's more than a university, it's a central part of how the country is moving forward. Of course there are research activities going on, there are branch campuses, there's Qatar University campus, Mohamed Bin Khalifa University, etc. The Qatar Foundation, as a whole, is a keystone that's trying to drive the country forward. So in that regard, it's much more of an engaged entity.

How successful has QF been so far in achieving its ambitions to build a science culture?

We're on a journey, so we must be very careful to make sure that we allow enough time for this culture to develop. It takes decades, so all you can do is to develop some indications on whether we're moving in the right direction. One indication is of course the commitment the country is showing in terms of creating the infrastructure needed, but another important indication is the kind of talent that we're attracting.

We want to be globally competitive in terms of recruiting people but we don't want the reason people come here to be only financial. We want people to come here because the problem sets are important, the research infrastructure is there, the colleagues they're working with are world-leading, and you have a vibrant environment to live in.

I have asked many of the people who came about their reasons, and they believe in the vision we have. They are also getting to see the fruits of the initial investment; the universities are becoming more research active, therefore they're attracting research-intensive faculty, which means there's education and they are having graduate students. So in the university, the culture is changing but also in the research institutes, we're attracting truly world-class people.

We will know for sure in five or ten years down the road when we have solved fundamental problems. But even if you look [at it now], our patents and publications are increasing. So are there absolute goals achieved? No. But there are sort of vague points along the way to see whether we're moving in the right direction.

You have talked about attracting world-class expertise, but what about locally grown expertise?

Today, we are not producing sufficient a numbers of PhD students and one of the things that we did was to look at best practices. Certainly, Qatar University is ramping up graduate programmes and QNRF is making the funding of PhD students and post-graduate fellows a great priority. We are going to ask every proposal we get: "what are you doing to support graduate students?" – so we are going to add incentives in the system.

But also, there are other models for creating talent, and growing talent locally. If you look at Max Planck, all their institutes have PhD programmes where the students are recruited directly to Max Planck institutes. They do their research within the laboratories of Max Planck but they get their degree from a local university. Qatar Foundation has announced a Qatar Foundation PhD programme where we have set a target of a thousand PhDs within the next five to seven years, and they will be recruited directly to the research laboratories in our institutes. They will get degrees from the Muhammad Bin Khalifa University or Qatar University or some of the branch campuses, but some also from international universities.

It's also important that we grow local talent in a much more systemic way. Ultimately, we want Qatar Foundation to have a healthy majority of local-born talent. If we hire 40 local talents a year, then in 15 years the majority of our researchers will be Qatar-born.

So we're actually beginning to think about ways of identifying young local-born talent, look for the interest in science, technology, engineering, mathematics. Maybe make Qatar Foundation researchers volunteer their time, maybe have magnet schools that are focused on science. We have to do many things systemically to grow this talent. We are not going to have it in one day, and it's not going to be one thing. You have to do all the various things that make it successful.

Does Qatar Foundation's new research plan shift the funding focus from basic research to more applied research?

You cannot simply do applied research without the basic underpinning, and basic research without a context is just wandering in the wilderness. You might do great things, but you really need to do something in context. So I think the only difference is that we will perform basic, applied and translational research in context of solving real problems. It has to be the full spectrum.

When it comes to our institute, we empower institute directors to figure out the balance between basic and applied research. All that we try to do is to hold them accountable for goals and objectives that they set for themselves. The different types of problems will have different balances that are necessarily to achieve objectives but I certainly see us doing very fundamental research such as stem cell research.

This is the only place I know where under one roof you have the funding agency, the national institutes, and the science and technology part where you can also incubate companies. This is actually a unique situation.

Are we doing it optimally? We can always do better.

So I certainly don't anticipate cutting off excellent research within Qatar, because in science you really don't know when that big discovery happens. And many times, a discovery that is relevant to Qatar comes from pursuing something completely orthogonal. So you have to give people the flexibility for creativity.

Focus should not be misunderstood as constraining creativity – it simply means that you ultimately need to have some sort of goal. Was going to the moon applied research? Definitely not. But it had a focus, it had a purpose. We need to have a goal that is bigger than ourselves. You need to have a sense of history. I know history will judge us, so we have to do everything that we can to make sure that history judges us kindly.