Qatar’s science revolution

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Qatar is building an education, science and technology infrastructure at record speed — but not without friction, reports Waleed al-Shobakky.

Qatar is experiencing a near revolution in science aimed at catapulting the oil-wealthy emirate into the 21st century.

Last November, Qatar’s emir, Hammad bin Khalifa Al-Thani pledged to allocate 2.8 per cent of Qatar’s gross domestic product (GDP) to science research.

The pledge signifies a serious, long-term commitment to science of about US$1.5 billion a year — highly unusual in a region where science and research budgets are almost non-existent.

Managing this budget is the Qatar Foundation (QF). Established by the emir in 1995, the QF is spearheading Qatar’s science revolution.

A symbol of progress

The QF’s flagship project is Education City, a 2500-acre campus in Doha that is home to branch campuses of five international universities.

The campuses include branches of US-based Cornell University’s Medical College, Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Science and Business schools and Texas A&M’s School of Engineering. Negotiations are also underway to bring in a journalism school, reportedly an offshoot of Northwestern University’s School of Journalism.

"Education City has become a symbol of progress at the highest level," says Farouk El-Baz, a QF advisor who heads the remote-sensing centre at Boston University in the United States.

El-Baz sees multiple gains in inviting top universities to set up branches in Qatar, most notable of which is the production of highly qualified graduates in different fields.

No less important is the ripple effect on education as a whole in Qatar. The presence of top Western universities, says El-Baz, has already triggered the reformation and upgrading of Qatar’s public education system to help prospective students keep up with the high demands of the likes of Cornell and Carnegie Mellon.

And the country is further benefiting from the emergent synergy between the Education City’s universities and two other QF projects: Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) and Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF).

Growing knowledge

Medical students at Cornell
University in Qatar
Credit: Martin Marion

Initiated in 2004 and hosted at Education City, QSTP was established specifically to nurture Qatar’s knowledge economy by juggling two tasks. One is to bring in multinational corporations with know-how in sectors such as information technology, hydrocarbon and the environment. The other is to encourage local research activities and entrepreneurship.

Eulian Roberts, chief Executive of QSTP, says the park focuses on developing "not only on the technical talent, but also the business talent".

A geneticist-turned-executive, Roberts is well aware of the research and entrepreneurial possibilities that could emerge out of collaboration between the occupants of QSTP and colleges in Education City, such as Carnegie Mellon’s business and computer science schools and Texas A&M’s engineering school.

To that end, QSTP has entry criteria that must be met before a company is granted admission. Top of the list is that each company must be committed to carrying out original technology development work in its Qatar branch, not just sales and marketing of existing products.

So far Microsoft, General Electric, Exxon-Mobil and Shell are among QSTP’s prominent tenants. According to a press release, tenants have committed to about US$225 million of investment in research and development activities over the next five years.

Besides facilitating collaboration between industry and academia, QSTP will also offer incubation services to business start-ups, along with business entrepreneurship and mentoring programmes.

Through these efforts, QSTP is trying to invigorate the local market with fresh perspectives and expertise from outside the region.

"The influx of overseas talent refreshes the [local] talent pool, brings new ideas, and brings about cultural diversity," says Roberts.

Funding the future

QF’s other project is the QNRF, which aims to offer the means and incentives for researchers — from Qatar and abroad — to carry out research in the country.

The first offshoot is the Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP), launched last November.

UREP is designed to encourage undergraduates from both public and international colleges in Qatar to propose and execute original research under the supervision of experienced faculty members. In addition to covering the cost of research expenditure, UREP grants an incentive package for every approved proposal: US$4,000 to the undergraduate and US$2,000 to the faculty member. The first batch of approved projects included subjects such as wind energy measurement, water desalination and intellectual property.

Other endeavours stand to benefit from QNRF support. Last April, Daniel Alonso, dean of Weil Cornell Medical College in the United States, told Science that he is planning to establish a stem-cell research unit in Qatar to address, among other issues, the high incidence of diabetes in Qatar and the Gulf region in general. Research on stem cells is illegal in New York, where Cornell is located.

Other areas proposed for collaboration include biotechnology, information technology, water and the environment.

Bringing it back home

The QF is keen that these developments benefit Qatar researchers. Last April, the QF invited expatriate Arab scientists in the United States, Canada and Europe for a conference to discuss the possibilities of collaborations with researchers in Qatar.

This is not the first time an Arab country has attempted to lure back Arab scientists working abroad. Similar initiatives began as far back as the early 1970s in Egypt, Libya, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but so far none has succeeded.

El-Baz thinks Qatar is approaching the idea with a fresh perspective. The previous initiatives, he notes, were open-ended with no specific goals or timetable and did little to promote cooperation with the outside world. Scientists who tried to initiate collaborations often found their efforts hampered by bureaucratic hurdles.

According to El-Baz, Qatar has assured the availability of research funds, and researchers can submit proposals to be financed by the QF. All research is to be conducted jointly with researchers in Qatar.

Too much too young?

Qatar’s swift progress has not been friction-free. Jim Holste, associate dean of Texas A&M, believes that most of the challenges the university branch has faced were typical start-up issues. But some were not.

Texas A&M University at Qatar
Credit: Texas A&M
University at Qatar

"Everything here is so new," says Holste. "The people we are interacting with [at the QF] are constantly adjusting their organisational structures to cope with increasing demands. QF, which started small, now has so many projects that it sort of struggles to keep up with its own growth."

Holste says that as a result the QF is grappling not just with the challenges of growth, but also with those of maintaining effective communications with its partners.

The lack of effective communication is sometimes frustrating for the QF’s partners. For instance, Holste says he learned almost too late of the conference involving expatriate Arab scientists.

He adds, however, that the event was a great opportunity to connect with scientists from various fields, as well as a step toward addressing one of Qatar’s shortcomings: the lack of a professional science community.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Qatar’s population is under a million, and three-quarters of them are expatriates.

But Texas A&M is not losing heart. To foster the growth of a homegrown professional community, the university has established two annual conferences — on chemistry and supercomputing — to serve as occasions for networking among students, academics and executives. Other Education City branch campuses are following suit.

And Qatar’s size can be an advantage. Eulian Roberts says the compactness of Qatar means one can "network easily, build relationships and offer effective support".

Texas A&M has also had to make some cultural adjustments in teaching, such as encouraging young men and women to interact more freely in the classroom.

The university has also had to slightly modify entry criteria to enrol more Qataris. The target quota of Qatari students per class in the agreement between Texas A&M and QF is 70 per cent. This figure has yet to be attained. So far, Qatari students make up little more than half; the rest come mainly from elsewhere in the Arab world and Asia.

These challenges notwithstanding, Holste says that in seeing Qatar’s surging interest in science and technology over the years, he has witnessed an "amazing evolution".

Qatar is preparing for the inevitable exhaustion of its oil and natural gas reserves, and seems determined to make its investments in science a lasting legacy — even if it takes a little longer than expected.

"How long did it take Oxford University to be what it is today?" says Michael Vertigans, public affairs director at Weill Cornell. "Qatar is trying to do in years what took hundreds of years to accomplish in Europe or the United States."