While working for Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Journals' QScience media organization from 2011 to 2016, we served QNRF as a publisher of their newsletter. Although credits have not been assigned as a matter of client agreement, I conducted and produced this interview, and it exists in the QNRF newsletter archives, linked directly before the following text. QNRF management and Mr. Alsuwaidi's records will attest.
ARCHIVE. Mr. Faisal Alsuwaidi's illustrious career began almost four decades ago when he began working for Qatar Petroleum (QP), rising to become QP's Administration Director. In 1997, he became the Vice Chairman and CEO of Qatargas, where he oversaw the construction and realization of LNG trains that are still the largest in the world, while Laffan is the largest condensate refinery in the world. As Qatar Foundation's President of Research and Development, Mr. Alsuwaidi brings a wealth of management and strategic experience to the research sector of Qatar Foundation. This interview highlights his transition, his vision for more collaboration among institutions and the power of the recently-unveiled National Research Strategy.
Q: Can you separate the goals of the Qatar National Research Strategy?
A: The main goal is to introduce the culture of research in Qatar. They have done a very good job so far. Through the fund, we will steer the research and development activity in Qatar toward national priorities. To achieve these, we are going to introduce new programs over the next five years. The main business from now on is to support the national priorities identified by the community of researchers in the country.
Q: How do you envision the future of Qatar’s research culture here and then in the region at large as a result of its growth?
A: If we look at resources, there’s nothing besides oil and gas. And everybody knows that this is depleting and depleting fast as demand increases around the globe. So we need to prepare ourselves for the future. In no way am I suggesting that research will replace the income of oil and gas, at least in the short or medium term, but science and research improve the quality of life in any country and hopefully we will be able to achieve both—making a small contribution to the economy and an improvement in quality of life in the country. This will happen through quality people who will come and help us here to address national challenges.
Q: Focused areas of research for the strategy—can you tell me how these were chosen?
First, we don’t impose our agenda on anybody. Different people will do different research for different reasons. Everybody can do what they like, but if you are to get funded through us then you need to attend to our priorities here. Second, when we say our priorities, actually these have been developed through interaction with the whole community of researchers in Qatar. Last year when we introduced our first strategy, more than 100 people came to our forum and contributed over two days to the strategy, and we identified around 70 research objectives that were transferred to QNRF and asked them to design their program to meet these priorities. So it has been very collaborative work and the majority of research institutions took part in it. Third, we needed to identify the reasons for success in order to filter the proposals that we saw.
We decided that addressing Qatar’s needs is the first filter. The second one is capacity. In order to address these priorities, we need to ensure that there is capacity to undertake this research. The third filter is impact. This research has to be big enough and serious enough to make a difference in Qatar, in the region and globally. When we talk about Qatar’s needs, basically what we are saying is the region’s needs, because of our similar situations. We all depend on oil and gas, we all have limited resources and we all suffer from the same issues … so the whole region has a lot of similarity.
Q: 2.8 percent of Qatar's GDP is going into research. How far into the future do you see the fruits of this research showing up? In other words, how long do you think it will take before you see a major impact?
A: I think we are beginning to see some results. When we talk about results in this kind of business, we need to manage our expectations. This is something for the long term if you like … this does not mean you will reach some benefits in between. To see a difference in a big way, this will take some time. We are in our infancy now, yet we have some very good marks of excellence and QNRF is one of them. I think in six years that they have developed a good system within the fund. They have achieved some good results, and we need to build on those and build other areas needed that support the whole system. For example, we need to develop the IP system. This is a cornerstone to everything and will help QNRF, our institutes and people who want to come to QSTP to develop their ideas. Some fundamental things are missing currently, but addressing these we hope will boost research activities.
I’m new here, but I was impressed with the results that have been achieved over the past four or five years considering the resources and considering the infrastructure I think people in Qatar should be proud of what they have achieved with the little resources that they have. Now we are developing a system that we hope will enhance this and will improve activities.
Q: How can we get more Qataris involved in research?
A: Publicity and sponsorship are important, but more importantly people have to have passion for what research is. Publicizing is important and people need to know the importance of activities that are taking place on the ground here. Incentives are important, but I’m not offering more salaries and more money. Research is something where you need to have a passion for it, to come and work on it. This is not like you hire someone and in two years they get a grade and a promotion. You really need to work. Some people don’t want a promotion. They want a lab space, and a project, and funding. Unless you have a passion for this I think research is not your area. We’d like to see more involvement so we are offering training and sponsorship to send people to do their masters and PhDs in big universities around the globe.
Q: How do you see the growth occurring here in Qatar being integrated with the growth happening in the region—what is the sharing strategy?
A: Our environment is the same—somebody in Abu Dhabi can import our strategic plan and say this is his. The same thing can happen in Kuwait and Bahrain. Like I said, there’s little difference between our needs, especially if they use the same criteria for success. They want to address their needs in the first instance. They want to have capacity. They want to make an impact. We use these criteria, and I think we could have one generic strategy for all.
I think that what will differ is the commitment of the leadership to see this strategy through. I am very proud of our leadership. His and Her Highnesses have pledged 2.8 percent of national income. We are investing now and created the budget for the next five years, and this has been approved. Her Highness is in contact on a daily basis asking us to give the progress of our activities. This will make a difference. Otherwise, needs here in the region are the same.
Q: What is your idea of good research. Is it something that results in a product or something tangible? What about research for research’s sake, say, theoretical projects? What in your mind constitutes good research?
A: I’m not a researcher. I’m a businessman. I like to see results. I’m not suggesting that the bottom line is that [theoretical work] is not important. But here I guess what is more important is our needs, so if people tell me that diabetes is an issue, we need to address that. This is why we term this the reason for success. So if you address those national needs, then you get funding, you get support. But research for the sake of research I think this is important for schools and universities.
Q: What have been the lessons learned from the research program as you have reviewed it?
A: I think if I look at the last four, five, six years at Qatar Foundation, like I said there is a very good thing considering the resources that they had … I think the effort now is to pull these resources together. In the past, they identified their priorities alone so each institute looked at what they needed, and they communicated with one or two stakeholders. I think now it’s more of a national effort instead of one or two stakeholder efforts, and we hope this will provide for the longer-term vision with more support and focus on the infrastructure issues I mentioned earlier. No one institute can address these.
Intellectual property—we need everybody to work on that. We need the IP office and the government system to work with us on that so they will see one face to all the research activity in Qatar Foundation and its centers.
This is a huge issue. One of the limitations that we have when we look at research from QSTP’s side is the number of patents and the number of entrepreneurs, so we need to open up for people outside Qatar to come and use this facility. Nobody will come with an idea unless they have protection. And protection is IP system policy. We also need to look at things like imports of chemicals for labs. This has been an identified issue by the community and is something that we need to build a system around and make sure we don’t shut labs down because of supply delays. This is another piece of work that we have to do collectively.
Q: Could anything have been done differently? Is there anything you want to change direction on? Any lessons learned you’d like to take forward?
A: I’m sure we will ask ourselves this question five or six years down the road. We try to involve everybody in order to minimize regret in the future so it has been very collaborative, and we are using different people’s experiences. We run our plans against very experienced people in the field to verify that we are on the right track. But if experience tells you anything it is that as you develop experience you will always say 'yes, I could have done this better,' but then until you gain that experience, you will not be able to know better. As for now we took all the measures to make sure that we are doing things the right way.
Q: How have the outcomes of research manifested themselves so far?
A: Most of the offers we make to people get accepted, which gives you some indication. We’re not paying tons of money. Other people see Qatar as a serious newcomer in this field, so people want to come and contribute. To me, this is one indicator of success or being on the right path. Another example is that QCRI [Qatar Computer Research Institute] has more than 50 patents. There is also a willingness of reputable, international research institutes or organizations to team up with Qatar Foundation. For example, last week we signed an agreement with Boeing to work on some IP issues, and we have collaboration with MIT and with Harvard so I think they see Qatar as serious about what they want to do. I’m not sure if they want to risk their reputation otherwise.
Q: How would you assess QNRF's performance so far?
A: Personally speaking, I think they’ve done a very good job. This also was confirmed by third party review that was conducted recently. They came to the same conclusion. Over the last six years, people did a very good job and developed a good system, so basically we are very pleased with their progress and their achievement based on a third party. They should be very happy with themselves and with what they have achieved. Being first is always difficult. Considering this should make people even more proud. I think people see QNRF now on the map and people here and abroad know about it. They have good programs locally for research, with schools and for graduates, and I think this will improve with the culture, and hopefully we’ll see more people taking up research professions.
Q: How do you compare the challenges of directing research and development with those of directing oil and gas?
A: At management level it’s the same … probably there are some differences but, generally speaking, my job would be to make sure that the plan exists and that this plan is communicated. If I agree to this plan, my job is to make sure that we deploy it and with the resources to see it through. So basically, it’s the same thing that you do as a manager. Now, the difference is that there you would be producing oil and gas and here you would be producing knowledge and solutions. So basically they are the same. Oil and gas existed for 40-50 years in Qatar. They’re pretty established in what they do, with an established system and best practices and efficiency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are in a bad situation. I think considering where we are compared to starting, we should feel very happy. I like to benchmark. I like to compare. But from a management level it is the same.
Q: What can we do to encourage new researchers to come to Qatar?
A: I would encourage them to read our strategy and our business plan. Both will be uploaded on the Qatar Foundation site soon. This will give people comfort and an indication that we are really serious. I have a lot of sympathy for people who come and work in other countries. To me this is a big decision that a family has to take. A spouse will have to give up his or her job. Children will have to change the school and will have to leave friends behind. I don’t think that we will ask people to do this unless we are serious. A good read of those two documents will indicate how serious we are. We like people to come and commit for the long term. We don’t want them to come and stay one year or two years. I think research will take a longer time to produce results, and we would like them to come and make Qatar home.
Q: Given the investments in the QF-ARC (Qatar Foundation-Annual Research Conference), what do you think are the benefits?
A: We spoke earlier about publicity. Functions like this will put Qatar on the map and raise the profile of the country. We invite quality people to come and contribute. It’s a good opportunity for people here to network with scientists internationally. It’s good for international scientists to come and share their ideas with the local researchers, to network and to learn and for our employees to learn. It’s also an opportunity for local researchers to present their work to the international community. There are many conferences on research around the world, but here we are investing time and money in order to raise the profile of this function. I was very encouraged last year when we published our strategy at the conference, at the quality of the people who came.
Thank you so much for your insights into the future of research in Qatar. We wish you the best of luck in your new role.