Master of Research

by  — 22 October 2012

Dr. Dirar Khoury is director of institutional research and acting executive director of the Research Division at Qatar Foundation (QF) for Education, Science, and Community Development, and programme chair of Qatar Foundation Annual Research Forum (ARF), which takes place in Doha in late October.

TheEDGE spoke to Dr. Khoury to discuss the agenda of the ARF, at which the Qatar National Research Strategy 2012 is due to be released, and the topic of research and development in Qatar in general.
You have been involved in research in both the health and technology sectors and have also registered some patents in the United States?

I was a scientist. My background is biochemical engineering, focused on cardiovascular research. The patents I have are related to developing new heart catheters for detecting an abnormal heartbeat, as well as imaging the heart from the inside of the body. I have been in Doha about four years, working with the management at Qatar Foundation’s research divisions. Now I am wearing a different hat, but it helps a lot that I have done research and been involved in science and understand what it is all about, and I am able to field and address the needs of our researchers and stakeholders.

To help achieve their goals?

Absolutely, I work in overseeing our research and development entities, and that includes the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, the Computing Research Institute and the Qatar Energy and Environment Research Institute, in addition to the Qatar National Research Fund and the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP). We help provide them with support in strategic planning and evaluation and issues related to operations, such as human resources or finance and communications, as well as issues relating directly to research.

What is the history and main purpose of the QF ARF?

Research has been growing in Qatar, and it was Her Highness’s [Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chairperson of Qatar Foundation] recommendation back in 2010 to form the ARF to help celebrate the accomplishments by both established and young scientists, as well as by students conducting research in Qatar. And to bring the various stakeholders, whether they be scientists, universities, research centres, companies, policy makers all under one roof to help foster the exchange of networking amongst them, as well as bring out further opportunities for collaborations both at the local and international level, but also by inviting key international participants in the forum.

Research is catered for in the 2030 National Vision. How important is involving international partners?

First and foremost this event will feature the launch of Qatar National Research Strategy 2012, which is a major national work that was spearheaded by our president Faisal Al Suwaidi when he came into office in January. By bringing all the main stakeholders in Qatar together, those who participate in research in one way or another – whether actively or as policy makers – and bring in an alignment among them in terms of strategic direction. That was a very critical step inasmuch as now the stakeholders feel a sense of ownership of this strategy, which is a wonderful thing because the whole country is in tune with the strategic research initiatives. That is at the local level, but also several of the strategic objectives are international in nature, whether it is the recruitment of the international research capacity or collaboration in specific areas of research. So the forum really fosters both the national interest and the international collaboration.

The Qatar National Research Strategy 2012 will be unveiled at October’s ARF. Is this a new document or a progression from previous incarnations?

It is new in the sense that all of the stakeholders in Qatar are coming together with a comprehensive engagement and endorsement. It spells out the priorities for Qatar, what the country should be focusing on, what it should be spending money on, which is an important step rather than trying to pursue a long list of opportunities.

How involved were all the key local stakeholders?

That is the strength of this initiative, they were all very much involved from day one. Universities, branch campuses in Education City, Qatar Foundation centres and institutes, industry, ministries and leadership participated in a series of workshops in an analytical manner to get to a consensus that was generated for 74 strategic objectives.

What are the top priorities?

The priorities are under four pillars: Health and Biomedicine, Energy and Environment, Computing and Information Technology, and the fourth pillar is Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts. We cannot do everything under these four pillars, so we focus on specific tasks to be pursued, for example when we talk about Health and Biomedicine the strategy will focus on issues that are a priority to Qatar, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Of course in energy oil and gas are low hanging fruit but also we will be putting focus on alternative kinds of energy, solar being the most obvious. Under computing we will be focusing on issues that are a priorities, such as Arabic language technologies and social computing. In the social sciences we are addressing very high powered subjects such as the transformation of the Qatari culture with the evolution of the country and social issues related to that.

Would you say this strategy now really puts Qatar in the front if not in the lead of research, this way of thinking, in the Arab world?

Absolutely. I think it is amazing for a country to have a strategy at the national level that addresses a national vision. It shows you the alignment between the leadership and stakeholders to the people on the street. We wrote the strategy and the vision so that the layman can appreciate it.

It also means that instead of having all these fields and streams working independently in a silo or vacuum mentality, they are now aware of what others are doing?

There is cross-fertilisation in interdisciplinary research. Absolutely that is also an important component of the strategy.

How is the research done? Is it driven by academia, the public sector or the private sector?

Let me first emphasise that there are three criteria for us to pursue a certain research topic. Number one, the research has to be important and of priority to Qatar. Number two, we have to have the human capacity in the immediate present or in the short term that will be able to conduct the research. And number three, that the research has to be of high quality for us to implement. Then we can activate various programmes to support the research’s strategic objectives. In principle many of our strategic objectives will be funded through the Qatar National Research Fund. We are also looking at perhaps enacting new mechanisms that would support industry-based initiatives, as well as initiatives that would address specific priorities, all in the hope that we have an alignment with our national strategy.

Can you list anything in recent years that have occurred at Qatar Foundation that might exemplify the new strategy?

For example, our Qatar Computer Research Institute has been striking important partnerships and conducting initiatives in social media, in for example a collaboration with Al Jazeera. Many other examples are also taking place at QSTP, such as Rasad, which is being implemented in Rome. Rasad is an ICT platform developed and owned by QSTP and Aspetar. It enables real time remote monitoring using wireless sensors, and is the first technology developed in Qatar outside the energy sector to be commercialised and exported. We have several successful stories of companies that are now beginning to showcase their products.

But research is not only about new inventions, but also other kinds of knowledge?

Research is not always about the pure science, such as in computing, energy and health. In fact the social science and the humanities are very important. We have had some activities to study the way people lived in the past here in Qatar and the region, to learn how they were able to sustain their living and take some clues as an example of how we can make our modern cities more sustainable, in the way you build the buildings and the way you orient the buildings, the streets, everything.

What is the private sector’s involvement in the various kinds of research done in terms of actually commercialising discoveries or patents?

In fact this is why the Qatar Foundation set up the new office of the President for Research and Development, so as to foster this communication, not just within the Qatar Foundation, but also among all the research and development entities in Qatar. To help in exchange of the outputs, for example, one of the strategic objectives is to develop a repository that will house all the science and technology outputs. And that repository is being developed in close co-ordination with the Qatar Statistics Authority, which in turn will be the mouthpiece for the country with the United Nations and the rest of the world, to demonstrate our results and outcomes.

How do discoveries and inventions transfer through to the private sector?

This is precisely why we have the QSTP, this is where we build the infrastructure to help incubate new companies, by bringing the ideas from the basic and translational research partners in Education City into the technology development and the commercialisation phase. So it is a continuum of stakeholders working together.

Would any revenue find its way back upstream to the researchers?

Absolutely, so the research labs can be sustained and self-sufficient. However we have to be careful that universities and research centres do not profit or get rich from patents. What is more important is dividends in terms of know-how, new ideas, new training and development of innovators.

And you do not want researchers to pursue short term profits when there are many other very important avenues to be followed?

We foster innovation not just purely for money, but mainly for the development of the country and diversifying the economy.

What specific outcomes do you expect at the 2012 QF ARF, what does the event hope to achieve now there is this kind of output, and how might this benefit Qatar moving forward?

There are several objectives, number one is to start discussing the implementation of the national strategy in a co-ordinated and cohesive way. One thing we did not mention is that we are inviting about 100 of the Arab expatriate scientists from outside Qatar. This is for various reasons, of which one is perhaps to try and reverse the brain drain and then maybe entice some of them to work with us in Qatar. And if they would like to stay in their home institutions, we would like to encourage them to collaborate with Qatar at the international level. These are very senior people who will also participate in various workshops of the forum and in different capacities.

So solidarity among Arab researchers is also to be a focus of the forum and in fact is represented in an official organisation?

Yes. You have the Arab Expatriate Scientist Network. All the credit goes to Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser in fact, she started this initiative in 2005 when she invited several Arab scientists to a conference here in Doha, to start discussing initiatives that are pertinent to Qatar and that is how the design and the launch of the Qatar National Research Institutes came about, which is also now lead by Arab expatriate scientists.

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