Building a regional research hub in Qatar

05 June 2009

The establishment of the Qatar Foundation 13 years ago has been the catalyst for wide-ranging reform of the education sector, as Doha attempts to become a centre for new scientific discoveries.

It is difficult to overstate the contribution the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development has made to the development of Qatar.

The charity, which was founded in 1995 by the then new emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to spearhead Doha’s mission to prepare its economy and citizens for the post-hydrocarbon era, has become a catalyst for wide-ranging reforms in education, healthcare and society in general.

Today, the foundation supports a network of more than 20 centres of learning and community outreach, including schools, research centres, a diabetes association, television channels, and even a philharmonic orchestra. Most are accommodated on a 14-square-kilometre site at its flagship Education City project, which is also home to branches of six US universities (see feature, pages 12-13).

The foundation’s investments have sometimes been portrayed as the extravagant spending of a newly wealthy nation seeking to keep ahead of its neighbours. But in fact, the organisation was set up with an endowment from the emir at a time when oil prices were below $20 a barrel.

Economic diversification

The emir’s motivation was simply to improve the standard of healthcare and education in Qatar and to diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil by supporting private sector development. This remains the fundamental aim of the Qatar Foundation.

“His Highness [the emir] had a clear vision that if we want to make change a reality, the most important vector for change is education,” explains Fathy Saoud, president of the Qatar Foundation.

The foundation is chaired by the emir’s consort, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, and the success the organisation enjoys today is often credited to her hands-on involvement in setting up its many projects.

When it was established, the foundation immediately understood that it could not focus only on improving one tier of the education system and would have to build the apparatus that could support a child throughout its schooling and beyond, otherwise its efforts would be quickly diluted.

In 1996, it set about establishing the private, co-educational Qatar Academy, which offers education from pre-school age to university entrance level. The curriculum is based on the International Baccalaureate and lessons are all taught in English. This is intended to give pupils a competitive edge for when they enter the increasingly globalised workplace. Today, 1,400 pupils are enrolled in the academy located in Education City, and a second one has been opened in Al-Khor, north of Doha.

While 1,400 pupils represents only a small proportion of the estimated 120,000 children of school age in Qatar, the thinking behind the Qatar Foundation’s education initiatives is that by establishing centres of excellence, other institutions will be inspired to improve their performance.

“First you establish something to show that excellence is important, and then you try to do something about the public schools,” says Saoud. “It is not good if we think of Education City as an island of excellence in Qatar; it is a model of excellence in Qatar. And through this model we are triggering a major reform effort for the public education system.”

The Qatar Academy has since been joined by six international universities at Education City, the first of which opened in 1998. The degree courses offered by these institutions include interior design, medicine, engineering and business. Again, all the teaching is done in English.

The university courses are open to all Qatari and international school leavers. To help students educated in public high schools in Qatar achieve the standards required for entry into the Education City institutions, in 2001 the found-ation set up the Academic Bridge Programme to improve competency in maths, science and English. These higher-education initiatives have also spurred improvements at the public Qatar University.

Having achieved its initial objectives in the education sector, the Qatar Foundation realised that research would be instrumental in diversifying the country away from hydrocarbons, and that cutting-edge technology could be developed and commercialised in Qatar. So the foundation set itself the new ambition of turning Qatar into a research hub for the region.

“At Qatar Foundation, we believe edu-cation is the basis for the change that we aspire for in our society,” says Saoud. “But education through knowledge transfer is not enough; education also has to lead to knowledge production.”

Research focus

The Qatar Foundation is actively promoting the take-up of three types of research: basic and fundamental; applied; and technology development and commercialisation.

“For a country to go from basic research to technology development it usually takes a long time,” says Abdelali Haoudi, vice-president of research at the Qatar Foundation. “So we added the second pillar of applied research, creating centres of excellence dedicated to a specific field.”

Rather than wait years for Qatar to generate its own researchers, and then even longer for them to invent a marketable product, the Qatar Foundation has decided to jump-start the country’s research capabilities by bringing in experienced researchers under two key initiatives that will put Qatar firmly on the map as a regional leader in research.

In March, the foundation inaugurated its $600m Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) in Education City. QSTP is intended to be an incubator of inno-vation and commercial technology.

It is the first free zone in Qatar where international corporations can set up a research and development operation. Already, 21 firms have made a base in the building, which comprises 45,000 square metres of office and laboratory space.

In 2012, the Qatar Foundation will also open the Sidra Medical & Research Centre, which is planned to be a centre of excellence for biomedical research. The hospital is being set up with a $7.9bn endowment from the foundation, and research will initially focus on pregnancy health and infertility, paediatric developmental and preventative health, and women’s health. Up to 600 researchers will be recruited from Europe and North America to work at Sidra.

“To save time, we wanted to get the three pillars developing in parallel and not sequentially, and for this it is important to involve as many partners as possible,” says Haoudi. “We hope this will put us in a better position to start looking at Qatar as a place where in the near future some new discovery or some new contribution to science will take place.”

Basic and applied research will also be undertaken at each of the universities in Education City. And in the long term, Education City is expected to generate the flow of human capital that will sustain the country’s research sector.

When the Qatar Foundation’s focus turned to research, it was given its own oil well, dubbed the ‘well of knowledge’, the revenues from which were intended to be used solely to support research initiatives. But it soon became clear that this would be insufficient to support the organisation’s grand ambitions, so the emir decreed that each year, 2.8 per cent of Qatar’s gross domestic product (GDP) would be used to fund research projects in the state. Calculated with GDP figures from 2008, that equates to $2.8bn.

With financial backing assured, in 2006 the Qatar Foundation established the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) to allocate grants to worthy research projects. It set up two funding mechanisms, the Undergraduate Research Experiences Programme, which supports student research projects, and the National Priorities Research Programme, which supports any research project provided one of the principal investigators is based in Qatar.

The latter programme places great emphasis on the exploitation of intellectual property using the expertise based at QSTP. If an invention is successfully commercialised, a percentage of the revenues will go to the Qatar Foundation, and in this way research becomes self-sustaining.

In the coming months, a new, larger body, expected to be called the Qatar National Research Foundation, will be set up, where the 2.8 per cent of GDP will be invested. But the QNRF will retain its responsibility for dispersing funds.

For the time being, the Qatar Foundation is concentrating on developing research capa-bilities in biomedicine, energy, environment and information technology - areas that are deemed to be of vital importance to the nation and the region as a whole.

“Qatar is a small country and we have to think clearly what type of research we should support; we cannot spread ourselves thinly,” says Saoud. “We have to focus so that we can get a revolution.”

Indeed, it is a revolution that the Qatar Foundation is aiming for. It wants to change the mind-set of the people, instil a hunger for learning and create a culture of research that will lead to technological innovation, and thereafter job creation and economic activity as new companies are set up to commercialise these inventions. QSTP and Education City have kick-started the process from the top, and efforts are also being made to promote research at high-school level.

Regional hub

It will be many years before the results of this research drive can properly be assessed. But Haoudi estimates that in 15 years’ time, Qatar will have succeeded in transforming itself into a regional hub for science and technology.

“We hope to see Qatar as a magnet for attracting different research institutions and corporate entities who will invest and support some of our research programmes,” he says. “We want to move this entire economy from being based on only one resource to being based on different types of innovation.”

The developed economies of the West have had hundreds of years to set up their education and research programmes, and Qatar is at the very beginning of that process. In just 13 years, the Qatar Foundation has already achieved an incredible amount, but it still has much more to do.

There is plenty of space available at the campus for further growth and efforts to attract more universities to set up in Education City are ongoing. The announcement of a law degree is expected soon.

But in terms of the ultimate size of Edu-cation City, the Qatar Foundation remains circumspect. Talk initially had been of a campus with tens of thousands of students, and as many as 15 universities. But the president of the foundation today says it will be home no more than 5,000 students and 10 universities.

“We are developing a very high-quality centre of excellence for education and research,” says Saoud. “We do not want this centre to be huge, we are developing a model similar to the elite, high-quality institutes in North America. The California Institute of Technology has produced about 10 Nobel Laureates and has only 2,000 students.”

The focus has now shifted to bringing in more research institutions to Education City and adding postgraduate programmes, including MBAs.

It is no secret that the Qatar Foundation has found it a challenge to convince universities to establish branches at its campus, and all six located there today are from the US. Leading UK institutions have proven particularly reluctant to get on board because of concerns over the logistics of running two branches and the danger that this could damage their centuries-old reputations.

Imperial College London is, however, collaborating on a joint research project at QSTP with the UK/Dutch Shell Group and state energy giant Qatar Petroleum that will look at carbonate reservoirs and carbon-storage technologies. University College London is also expected to undertake some archaeological and museum work in Qatar.

It is natural that there would be some scepticism about what the Qatar Foundation is hoping to achieve and the scale of its ambitions, as it has never been attempted before. But the fact that the foundation was set up with an endowment shows this is a long-term commitment to education and research.

Already there are tangible results from this investment. Not just the impressive physical buildings of Education City and QSTP, and the long list of companies that have opened offices there, but most significantly, the several hundred students that now have a degree certificate from an international university based in Qatar.

The key challenges that lie ahead for the Qatar Foundation will be getting its alumni to remain in the country after graduation and overcoming the shortage of research personnel in the region.

Science graduates

With this in mind, the foundation has devised the Qatar Science Leadership Programme (QSLP), which aims to train up science graduates to work in research centres. The scheme offers two alternative streams for students to follow: one for research administrators and one for scientists.

The aim of QSLP is to generate skilled workers for the many research laboratories that have been set up through Qatar Foundation initiatives. The programme is primarily for Qatari graduates, although others are also considered. The first call for applicants last year attracted six students. These are sponsored by the Qatar Foundation for the duration of the programme and are guaranteed a career at the end.

The stream for training research scientists consists of sending the student to undertake either a master’s degree or a doctorate at universities that have established or plan to establish joint research activities in Doha. The research administrator trainees do work experience in the research division of the Qatar Foundation before going on rotations in QSTP and other centres.

The Qatar Foundation has already defied the scepticism of many of its doubters. Rising applications year on year for limited places at Education City universities are testament to its achievements so far, along with the growing number of proposals for research projects submitted to the QNRF.

It has laid the foundations for a new knowledge-based economy, but now it needs to add the building blocks that will go on to generate revenue streams. For that to happen, it needs to create a critical mass of high-skilled researchers in the country, and it is this that will ultimately determine the success or failure of the foundation’s quest to turn Qatar into a research hub for the Gulf.

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