Why are so many researchers moving to Qatar?

Three academics explain what makes the country and its research scene so attractive

Qatar-featured.jpg

Aerial view of Qatar (istock.com/imagean)

Map of Qatar (Source: UN)Qatar is a small country that protrudes into the Persian Gulf north of Saudi Arabia. It’s home to 1.8 million people, 83 percent of whom are expats. It also happens to be the world’s most attractive research destination.

We analyzed 77 countries’ research bases to find out how many publications each country produces, how impactful those publications are, how collaborative the researchers are, and how much they move into and out of each country.

One of our findings was that many more researchers are moving to Qatar (18 percent) than out of the country (7 percent), resulting in a net researcher inflow of 11 percentage points. This suggests that Qatar is a top research destination.

But what makes it so attractive?

Building research from the ground up

A few decades ago, Qatar had relatively little research capacity. But the country now invests about $100 million a year in research, supporting new institutions and faculties. The result is an increasingly supportive research environment.

Prof. Omar El-Agnaf, PhDFor Dr. Omar El-Agnaf, Professor of Life Sciences in the College of Science and Engineering at Hamad bin Khalifa University and new Acting Executive Director of Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), this was an important factor in deciding to move to Qatar. “The country and its vision were very attractive to me,” he said.

Dr. El-Agnaf is originally from Libya and he moved to Qatar a year ago. His research focuses on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Parkinson’s disease, and has funding from the Michael J. Fox Foundation. For Dr. El-Agnaf, the opportunities Qatar offers far outweigh the challenges:

It’s a small country and there are some issues – for example, it can be slow to set up your lab. But things are moving, and I believe they will continue to improve over time. As a scientist, I like challenges; I get bored if everything’s easy. That’s human nature.

Xiaosong Ma, PhDSome of the challenges are unique to Qatar, which in itself feeds into research. Dr. Xiaosong Ma, Senior Scientist at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) of Hamad bin Khalifa University, is originally from China and moved to Qatar in 2013 after working in the US. Her research is on distributed systems; she explores how industry can use powerful machines better, scheduling tasks to make everything run more efficiently.

“Here you can experience unique infrastructure problems that you can’t easily see in the US,” she explained. “There are lots of interesting challenges to address, and people have to get things done on smaller machines or slower deployment of hardware, or using fewer resources. Being here means we can start to address these challenges with our research.”

Despite these challenges, Qatar is developing fast; thanks to government investment, good infrastructure means researchers from around the world can find state-of-the-art facilities and institutions to work at.

Qatar University

Hareb Al Jabri is Manager of the Algal Technologies Program at Qatar University, where he supervises an international team of researchers from India, Holland, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, and Qatar. He believes this investment has improved Qatar’s reputation, attracting people from overseas.

Hareb Al Jabr, PhD“Five years ago it was difficult to order chemicals and equipment but now it’s much faster and easier – we can see a clear change,” he said.

“We also have very high-ranking universities like Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, which are all attracting people to work here in Qatar,” he added, referring to major US universities that have campuses there.

Dr. El-Agnaf recognizes the improvement:

Twenty years ago we had nothing, but now look at it! Twenty years from now things will be even better. We can’t compare with the US or the UK, but we’re attracting senior and junior scientists from other countries now. We’ve never seen people coming here from those parts of the world before.

Funding research locally

One of the biggest challenges researchers face around the world is getting funding for their work. Grants are increasingly competitive, and scientists can end up spending a large proportion of their time applying for funding – a situation Dr. Ma finds familiar: “In a typical computer science department in the US, a large part of your work has to be focused on securing funding for your future research,” she explained.

But in Qatar, it’s easier to get funding; the government allocates 2.8 percent of its oil income to support research, at a time when financial support around the world is very difficult. According to Dr. Ma, one of the results is that there’s less of a focus on chasing the next big thing:

Funding agencies face pressure to show that their sponsorship has generated research that helps the economy and produces more jobs. This leads to a focus on ‘hot stuff’ so researchers guide their work towards these trends to get funding – it becomes a positive feedback loop. But we can’t be chasing hot topics all the time. Here in Qatar, the pressure is taken off; we still need to do research that’s relevant research to Qatar, but to me that’s more real.

Getting funding is also easier than it is in many other countries, especially for expats. “The start-up money is great,” said Dr. El-Agnaf. “From my perspective, it’s a place I can do things I dream to do – things that might be crazy. As a scientist, this is the first thing we look for: can I do my science, can I do even more than where I am, is there good infrastructure and funding? Now I’m in an environment where I can do the things I want to do.”

Qatar also has the highest per capita income in the world, something that doesn’t go unnoticed in the research world.

“The attractive salary and benefits for the family are also a bonus; no one can deny that,” Dr. El-Agnaf said. “Most scientists could never leave their science for money, especially if they’re in the middle of their career, but it certainly helps.”

A central location for families

Qatar’s culture and environment are also important factors in attracting researchers to the country, and it has the second highest standard of living in the Middle East.Qatar is a good environment for foreign people,” Al Jabri said. “It’s very international, and they feel safe here.”

It’s also perfectly positioned for global travel, as a hub connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia. This was one of the country’s selling points for Dr. Ma:

Family wise, Qatar is a fantastic place to live because it’s central, so although it’s far away from the US and Australia, you’re closer to most countries in the world. And because of the generous paid leave, that means we can take our kids to Europe, Asia, and Africa to see the world. They love it.

Dr. El-Agnaf agrees: “Qatar airlines fly everywhere. When we have the opportunity, we just go somewhere; my family loves it. But there’s also lots going on here, like concerts and other activities.”

Being a good place to raise a family means young people are also attracted to the country. Qatar has many top educational institutions, training the next generation of researchers. For Dr. El-Agnaf, this is key to the country’s long-term success in research, and a duty of the current generation:

We need to educate our young people and create real opportunities, real jobs for them. We need to find a way for our kids and grandkids to create a better world for them. The moment we ignore our young people, they go in their own direction; it’s our responsibility to be there for them, open doors and support them.

I definitely feel I’m able to do that here. I’ve been in the region for a while – I was at UAE University for 10 years, where I encouraged a lot of young scientists. When I look to the colleges, we see different faces from everywhere. It doesn’t matter where they come from, they’re always loyal to where they were educated, so they’re likely to return later in their careers. I think it was a great vision of Qatar to welcome campuses from big educational institutions. In 15 years, things will be even greater.


Sarah Huggett is on the Elsevier Analytical Services team. For this story, Sarah worked with science writer Lucy Goodchild van Hilten.

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