From Oil Wells to Fountains of Knowledge: Building a Research Culture in Qatar
By Millie Hyde-Smith
The Arab region is not renowned for its research input. According to UN figures, Arab countries spend 0.15% of gross domestic product (GDP) on research, and this amounts to only fractionally over 10% of the global average. Yet, if the small Gulf country of Qatar has its way, all this will change. The state of Qatar, which has the fastest growing economy in the world, has dedicated 2.8% of its GDP to research with a view to diversifying its income from oil and gas revenues to one derived from a knowledge-based economy focused on science, technology and medicine. Put in real terms, that 2.8% equals 1.5 billion US dollars per year and compares to 2.7% in the US and 1.8% in the UK.
Nonetheless, Qatar is aware that it takes more than money to excel at research. Having looked at the success of other countries such as the UK, where research output greatly exceeds investment in comparison to other countries, it has recognized the need to focus, to invest in excellent universities, and to favor multi-disciplinary work.
So in order to allocate some of that capital whilst simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, ensuring that a sustainable research culture is established, the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) was established in 2006. Its mission is to administer funding for original, competitively selected research that is in the national interest, but QNRF has been established as much more than a funding body. It promotes the concept and importance of research nationally, particularly to young people at undergraduate level. The Fund also ensures that the research it provides for adheres to international standards. In order to do this it has worked closely with a number of international bodies, such as the NSF, NIH and the U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation, and has deliberately kept the benchmark for funded research high to encourage excellence.
Another key role of the QNRF is to facilitate collaboration and multi-disciplinary research between Qatar-based institutions and international partners. Many of these projects involve one of the six US universities with branch campuses in Education City (the education & research hub established by Qatar Foundation), but increasingly state and private entities in Qatar are developing research programs and working in collaboration with academic partners abroad. To encourage these partnerships a delegation from QNRF visited a selection of UK and US universities over the summer of 2008 to explain what funding and partnership opportunities are available. Sattar Al Taie, Director of QNRF elaborates:
“We actively encourage collaborative research between institutions in Qatar and established research facilities abroad because promoting knowledge and technology transfer in this manner builds human capital. In this way we help our academic institutions attract and retain top faculty, and contribute to the development of a research culture here.”
The principal funding program for professional researchers is the National Priorities Research Program, or NPRP as it is known. This annual program is currently in the midst of assessing applications to its 2nd cycle of funding and in Spring will be awarding a total of US $45 million with grants ranging from $20,000 to $350,000 per year, payable to projects spanning anywhere between one and three years. Applications are all independently peer reviewed by at least three international experts, and the process adheres to a strict policy of transparency and equality. Al-Taie feels this rigor, combined with encouraging collaboration, has contributed to the success of the NPRP:
“A manifestation of this is that QNRF received during the second NPRP cycle nearly 500 proposals from 277 institutions located in 46 countries.”
Applications can come from within a range of broad research areas, including the natural sciences, engineering, and technology. At least one PI must reside in Qatar and 50% of the research effort must be conducted in the state; however, QNRF recognizes that modern research programs are not restricted by borders or institutional boundaries and can be coordinated across multiple sites.
QNRF is funding research in many disciplines of physical sciences, ranging from theoretical and fundamental physics to immediate applied physics. Physics research is also integral to many interdisciplinary research projects, particularly those springing out of the petrochemical industries. In keeping with its drive to develop home-grown knowledge, as opposed to relying on bought expertise, this field of research is of primary importance to Qatar.
An example lies in nanotechnology, which has great significance to Qatar’s gas industry as nanocatalysts are used in the gas-to-liquid conversion processes. Enhancing the activity and selectivity of these nanocatalysts is a multi-disciplinary research field which is one of those supported by QNRF and involves joint teams comprised of both US- and Qatar-based researchers. The input of physics is crucial in understanding the processes of these catalytic reactions at the atomic and molecular level, and the identification and characterization of the active sites. This can inspire chemists to look for ways to design and make high performance nanocatalysts. For example, a research team composed of Professors Mahmoud Khader of Qatar University, Wayne Goodman at Texas A&M University, and Dragomer Burkur at Texas A&M at Qatar addressing issues related to the activation of supported cobalt nanoparticles.
University physics departments are also involved in a wide range of QNRF-funded activity, notably projects concerning biodetection, solar energy conversion, photocatalysis, photonics, laser spectroscopy and nonlinear optics. Funded research activities in applied mathematics and theoretical physics include projects aiming at understanding quantum entanglement, the outcome of which could have great applications in the security of communication within quantum information science.
Qatar’s efforts to create a knowledge-based economy, which started over a decade ago with the establishment of a world-class educational infrastructure before the focus transferred to research and development, represent a unique experiment. Ultimately it is hoped that some of the research funded by QNRF and others will result in the ultimate prize of intellectual property rights and commercialization. Only time will tell if Qatar’s ambitious plans, enviable wealth, and unbridled enthusiasm pay off.
Researchers who are interested in collaborating with researchers in Qatar and applying for NPRP funding for the next cycle, which begins in summer 2009, should refer to the NPRP proposal submission section of the QNRF website.
Millie Hyde-Smith is a consultant for QNRF.