Qatar establishes itself as a regional base for research and innovation

 

Qatar’s national vision of transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy is rooted in developing the state as a regional and increasingly global leader in research and development (R&D). The government has gradually strengthened the human and capital resources required to achieve this goal through the transformation of its education systems and with major investments in developing an advanced academic and research environment. The Qatar National Research Strategy, which was launched in 2012, outlines an extensive framework of goals and objectives under five priority themes that reflect local needs. The government has signalled the importance of these initiatives with commitments to allocate 2.8% of total government revenue to finance the development of facilities and research.

DEVELOPING A BASE: Qatar Foundation (QF), in particular, has played a critical role in funding research and by developing leading centres for research in medicine, science and technology. QF’s research is led through its R&D arm, which serves as the “custodian” of the national research strategy and directs funding for research through the Qatar National Research Fund.

It also houses three research institutes that have been established with the purpose of addressing specific needs in the country, comprised of the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), and Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI).

Qatar R&D also oversees the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), which serves to bring industry and academics together in an innovative environment at Education City, incubating knowledge with the eventual goal of commercialising results.

Finally, QF’s flagship $7.9bn Sidra Medical and Research Centre is destined to be a major centre for research in the health sector. It will function as a teaching hospital affiliated with the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar and as a medical research centre.

Qatar’s two universities, QU and Hamad bin Khalifa University, are also directing significant resources and attention towards developing a core research base within the country. Both universities have launched a number of programmes and initiatives in order to broaden the state’s research base.

QF: Qatar’s ambitions of transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy rest on developing a strong foundation of R&D that is embedded within the country. Qatar has invested several billion dollars on reforming and developing institutions within the sector and building cutting-edge infrastructure to support a robust research environment. QF is the major vehicle that the government has used to drive this strategy forward.

The inauguration of QF’s Education City in 2003 was the first major step towards the organisation’s vision of “unlocking human potential”. Education City has served to draw together the selected expertise of several foreign universities that have helped establish a strong cadre of research programmes in Qatar.

Texas A&M University at Qatar, for example, has developed research programmes to support industry, with a strong focus on the oil and gas sector. Specific topics of study include more effective oil and gas production, the development of alternative energy sources and better energy efficiency in buildings. Texas A&M Qatar’s engineering research complements the needs of industry in Qatar. The university reports holding some $70m in research grants awarded to the faculty by industry, QF and Qatar government agencies.

Most recently, Texas A&M established a research centre to develop technologies for extracting shale gas more efficiently and to train students for jobs in gas processing. The Gas and Fuels Research Centre will include 19 researchers and is expected to draw together research on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to utilise shale gas. Similarly, the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar is working towards establishing a biomedical research programme that focused on health needs that are specific to Qatar and the region. The research programme will work in collaboration with Hamad Medical Corporation, QF’s Sidra Medical and Research Centre, and the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York to improve the understanding of disease factors specific to the local population.

QF’s university partnerships are also establishing research programmes outside the fields of technology and health care. HEC Paris in Qatar, which launched its business and management programmes in Qatar in 2010, opened a research office in 2014 that will focus on business elements such as consumer behaviour and incentives to support industry in Qatar. The office is initiating its programme with two research projects on understanding incentive mechanisms to deploy energy-efficient technologies and developing optimisation models to minimise the country’s carbon footprint, which take into account local consumer behaviour.

Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar is also working on expanding its research programmes. The university has established a Seed Research Fund for faculty that grants up to $200,000 for research that is relevant to Qatar and the region. This level of funding is a critical factor to attracting a highly skilled faculty. The university reports awarding 62 grants for research since 2004.

NATIONAL RESEARCH STRATEGY: QF’s R&D division also oversees a number of thematic research centres and incubation zones that are rapidly expanding the scope of research within the country. The R&D division’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the strategy “with the aim of developing the capabilities of Qatar’s people and institutions, building and maintaining a competitive and diversified economy, improving the health and well-being of the national population, supporting the nations distinctive culture and security of its people, while also preserving and improving the natural and built environment”.

The Qatar National Research Strategy is a comprehensive document that aligns the country’s wide-ranging research programmes to the vision statement: “Qatar will be a leading centre for R&D excellence and innovation”. The strategy articulates the country’s “innovation value chain” from basic and applied research, to development and commercialisation, and finally uptake and application. The document outlines 23 goals and 76 objectives that address five priority themes of research. These include: enterprise-wide; energy and environment; computing and IT; health; and the social sciences, arts and humanities. The scope of the strategy provides some insight on the importance the government places on the country’s research agenda.

QATAR NATIONAL RESEARCH FUND: The government and QF channel a significant portion of their research budget through QF R&D. One major vehicle is the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), which was established in 2006, with the goal of fostering original, competitively selected research in engineering and technology, physical and life sciences, medicine, humanities, social sciences and the arts. QNRF finances the promotion of research at all levels right from kindergarten. The fund’s flagship programme, the National Priorities Research Programme (NPRP), recently announced the results of their seventh funding cycle in May 2014, which allocated over $130m to 162 projects from 22 institutions – a significant increase from the previous year’s $121m for 137 projects.

Projects are appraised through a peer-reviewed programme and are granted up to $300,000 a year for three years. One of the explicit goals of the NPRP is to help colleges and universities in Qatar attract, develop and retain skilled faculty members and to provide incentives for institutions to build the organisational infrastructure needed to support researchers. Proposals are expected to align with the pillars outlined in the Qatar National Research Strategy. Some 35% of the funds are available for research outside Qatar though the majority is required to remain within the country.

The 2014 winners were selected from a total of 798 proposals that covered research topics from water security to health issues. One winning project from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, for example, will examine the relationship between diabetes, which afflicts almost 16% of the local population, and tuberculosis. Two Carnegie Mellon submissions will study the professional development of teachers in Qatar and a distributed analytics engine.

In a positive sign for the local research industry, submissions from QU received the highest amount of funding in 2014, winning an estimated total of $48.8m for its proposals. Texas A&M won $31m; Hamad Medical Corporation, $15.9m; the Weill Cornell Medical College, $9m; and Carnegie Mellon University, $4m.

The research is already having a real impact. Researchers from Texas A&M, for example, are applying for a patent on a new technology to test cement used in oil and gas wells. The developments could help reduce leakages, with a significant impact on the sustainability of the oil and gas sector.

Another team at Texas A&M is collaborating with physicists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research to use the large hadron collider facilities to apply new technologies for the treatment of cancer.

QBRI: In addition to funding individual projects, QF R&D finances the operations of three thematic research institutions that will be housed in the new R&D complex. The QBRI was established in 2012 with the goal of “transforming health care through science and innovation”. The institute is in the process of setting up six centres of excellence that will include centres for cancer, diabetes and obesity, neurological diseases, medical genetics, genomics and personalised health care, and computational biology and biostatistics. Recognising the need to target funding to help develop Qatar’s nascent biomedical research industry, QBRI is focusing on genetic research for breast cancer, Type II diabetes and neuro-developmental disorders such as autism and epilepsy. Some specific research areas include studying genetic aspects of diabetes and the links between diabetes and cancer.

The research institute is tackling many of the challenges that Qatar is facing more broadly in developing the country’s research base. The lack of a critical mass of research in any field in Qatar makes the process of starting a new research institute difficult. QBRI is thus developing proper channels for dialogue exchange and coordination across the various entities that are conducting biomedical research in Qatar.

“In 2014 the country worked to develop the proper channels for dialogue exchange in close coordination. QBRI, for instance, recently signed an agreement with Sidra Medical and Research Centre to use 500 sq metres of research space in their facilities and is also finalising an agreement with Hamad Medical Corporation for joint research in the fields of diabetes and cancer in addition to finalising an agreement with QU for collaboration and teaching, with one aspect being the development of biomedical,” Hilal Ahmed Lashuel, the executive director of QBRI, told OBG.

In parallel, the institute is investing in the infrastructure required for the research. QBRI is procuring equipment for its research labs, which are scheduled to be operational by mid-2015. It is already making advances through its research. In June 2013, scientists discovered a method of making stem cells secrete insulin. The process will require significant testing and further research, but it could lead to clinical trials and eventually a treatment for diabetics.

QCRI: QF R&D’s second research institute focuses on tackling large-scale computing challenges. The QCRI, which was established by QF in 2010, conducts “multidisciplinary computing research that is relevant to the needs of Qatar, the wider Arab region, and the world”. The centre’s research topics include areas such as Arabic-language technologies, social computing, data analytics, distributed systems, cyber security and computational science and engineering.

QCRI is working with Boeing, the global aerospace company, to develop a commercial product to improve health maintenance services of airplanes by analysing patterns of data from the plane’s system. If successful, the product could potentially be used in the 1100 Boeing 777’s in operation globally. In 2013 QCRI applied for more than 50 patents for its products and ideas. QCRI’s language technologies and innovations won the institute the “Best in Show” award at the NewsHACK event in London in December 2014. Future research is also expected to tackle issues such as cyber crime.

QEERI: QF R&D’s third research institute, which was launched in 2011, focuses on water and energy security. These issues pose a challenge for countries across the region. R&D within these sectors would therefore help position Qatar as a regional knowledge leader.

One specific goal of the QEERI is to support the deployment of 1 GW of power generated by solar energy through the electricity grid while reducing risk and instability of the network. QEERI is specifically looking at solar photovoltaics, energy storage technologies and grid integration. The project is being managed in collaboration with Texas A&M and with Kahramaa, Qatar’s utilities company, to develop solutions for a smart grid and off-grid technologies in Qatar.

In the water sector, the institute is targeting water sustainability as well as the increase of food production. QEERI’s research on energy-efficient water desalination technologies, water re-use and methods of recharging aquifers is expected to help increase energy efficiency, reduce the cost of producing energy and minimise the health environmental impacts and risks. The institution is also developing an air quality management system, which will help the government and companies develop strategies to mitigate air pollution.

QSTP: In addition to investing in its own research, Qatar R&D also manages QSTP, which functions as an incubator for local and foreign companies to develop and commercialise technology. QSTP functions as a free zone, and is designed to promote academic-industry connections, foster innovation and facilitate the transfer of technology from research to the marketplace. The free zone provides accommodation and cutting-edge services for private and public R&D facilities and technology-based companies. Total, Microsoft, Cisco and GE are just some of the global brands that have established research facilities at QSTP. The technology park has helped create a number of major innovations and companies in Qatar. One of its earliest successes was the establishment of the Virgin Health Bank QSTP, which was the region’s first blood banking facility.

QSTP is also supporting the Qatar Carbonates and Storage Research Centre (QCCSRC), which is focused on researching CO capture and storage to support climate change mitigation strategies. QCCSRC’s research is designed to support the local oil and gas industry by looking at the storage of CO in carbonates that are most prevalent in the Middle East region. The centre is a joint initiative between Shell, Qatar Petroleum, QSTP and Imperial College London. The partners are contributing up to $70m over a 10-year period to finance the research. The project website highlights that “the Middle East has 62% of the world’s proven conventional oil reserves, of which approximately 70% are in carbonate reservoirs. Moreover, the region has 40% of the world’s proven gas reserves, of which 90% lie in carbonate reservoir”. These statistics point to the potential value and impact of the research for the region.

In the IT sector, QSTP also serves as the base for MEEZA, one of Qatar’s first home grown IT services company, which is structured as a joint venture with QF and is engaged with providing data storage and other cloud services through its data centre located within QSTP. QSTP has announced that it will support the growth of SMEs in the state going forward.

BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH: One of the QF’s single biggest investments has been in developing the $7.9bn Sidra Medical and Research Centre, designed to be a focal point for research in Qatar’s health sector. The centre will function as a teaching hospital affiliated with the Weill Cornell Medical College and as a medical research centre. The research branch of the centre serves as a hub for biomedical research with a core aim of “advancing the understanding of epidemiology and mechanisms of diseases, develop preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic tools, and improve the health outcomes of the women and children of Qatar.”

Sidra recently launched a five-year strategic plan for 2015-20 that outlines and prioritises core areas and scope of research. The research branch is expected to be staffed with 420 employees when it is fully functional including 40 full-time scientists who will lead the research while the remainder will include students, post-doctoral fellows, technicians and research scientists. Research facilities will include the hospital, which will house nine small labs, the main research laboratory space, which will cover 10,000 sq metres of floor space, and various other offices.

Under the plan, Sidra’s capital costs are expected to total $105m over the five-year period between 2015 and 2020, while staff and operating costs are estimated to reach over $660m over the same period. Financing for the research is expected to come from QNRF, which is expected to provide around $42m over five years, industry sponsors that will contribute an estimated $10m and various other sources.

EMBEDDING RESEARCH IN UNIVERSITIES: Qatar’s two local universities, QU and Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU), are also directing resources towards increasing research. QU’s progress in developing a robust research programme is evident in its success in the National Priorities Research Program, winning a total of $48.8m. QU’s research activities also extend to developing collaborative projects with institutions around the world on a range of topics in line with its research roadmap, such as Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest research programme. Additionally, QU students and faculty have benefitted from a host of agreements that foster opportunities for academic and research exchanges and inter-cultural activities, such as those signed recently in Japan and South Korea.

“Along with a state-of-the-art research complex and 14 research centres of excellence, QU is continuing to further develop its campus under a QR3.5bn ($959.4m) expansion programme,” QU President Sheikha Abdulla Al Misnad told OBG. “The aim is to establish QU as a residential campus with a student centre offering student-focused services and resources to encourage the spirit of collegiality and scholarship, and provide students with a vibrant and interactive campus life”.

OUTLOOK: Establishing a robust R&D sector from the ground up is an immense task. Qatar has used its vast resources to tackle this challenge over the past two decades. The country has made substantial investments in the physical capital and infrastructure required to establish the country as a regional, and increasingly global, research and knowledge hub. QF has led these efforts but it is a sign of its success that other actors, including the private sector, are playing an increasingly important role. Unlike many other sectors, however, simply building the hardware is only the first step.

Qatar faces competition in attracting top scientists and innovators from established research hubs in Europe, North America and Asia, and in developing its own cadre of scientists. Parallel reforms in the industry and education sectors, however, are likely to help bridge these gaps. While it will take time for research to mature in Qatar, it is clear that scientific enterprise to accelerate innovation and is the key to shifting Qatar’s vision from a carbon- to a knowledge-based economy.

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