DOHA—Research topics focusing on a new set of priorities were presented at the Qatar Foundation Annual Research Conference last week, responding to a shift in research goals of one of the world’s wealthiest countries.
The change came in response to last year’s announcement by the Qatar Foundation Chairperson, Sheikha Moza, that three “grand challenges” should be the focus for researchers. Aimed at trying to solve the nation’s most pressing problems, the new priorities are water security, cyber security and energy security.
While the shift was made mandatory for only three institutions—the Qatar Computing Research Institute, the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute and the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute—experts say the change is significant.
“The grand challenges are meant to reflect more focus on local issues,” said Abdul Nasser Al-Ansari, executive director of the Qatar National Research Fund. “Previously, there was no specific focus for research. The newly-defined grand challenges will help narrow down research to address issues that are critical to the country.”
Qatar’s long-term research aim is to transform the country’s hydrocarbon-driven economy into a knowledge-based economy—a term that was hotly debated at the Qatar Foundation research conference, held on November 18 and 19.
“We need to decide what we mean by a knowledge-based economy,” said Darwish Al Emadi, head of the Social and Economic Research Institute at Qatar University. “Do we want to continue being knowledge consumers who buy knowledge because [we] can afford it or do we want to be part of knowledge creation as well?”
“Focus on research is very important as part of this knowledge-creation process,” he added.
Home to a diverse collection of research and educational institutions—and a relatively generous commitment to spend 2.8 percent of its GDP on research—Qatar seems to be in a privileged position to advance research and development. Global Finance magazine ranked Qatar as the world’s wealthiest country by GDP per capita in 2013.
But if Qatar has the cash for research it needs more human capital. Speakers at the conference said the country has to attract more high-quality researchers and graduate more students in knowledge-economy fields. According to the Qatar National Development Strategy, the number of students graduating from Education City—a complex of schools and international branch campuses where students focus more on knowledge-based economy subjects than those at that nation’s largest public university—comprise only a small proportion of the total graduate population in Qatar.
Up to 2013, most research focused on engineering, technology, health, information systems and social sciences and humanities, said Al-Ansari. Throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, for instance, showed an interest in working on health challenges prevalent nationwide.
“Our research in Qatar tends to focus on lifestyle diseases that are common in the country including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases,” said Essam Taher Shaltout, a clinical research coordinator at the medical college.
Other Qatari institutions are also focusing on prevalent local health problems.
In June, scientists at the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, in collaboration with researchers at Imperial College London, announced they made a potentially significant breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes. The team discovered a new way to get isolated stem cells in a laboratory setting to secrete insulin when it is needed to maintain sugar levels in the human body. If this discovery could be moved from the laboratory to the clinic, an often-difficult step, it might eliminate the need for diabetics to monitor and adjust their insulin levels.
While Qatar works to advance scientific research in topics of immediate importance to the country, the challenge remains in developing local research talent to be able to produce more such substantive research results.