QNRF Support Services Manager, Mahmoud Talaat.
Over the past five years, The Qatar National Research Fund has awarded nearly US$345 million in support of 411 research projects ranging in sector from engineering to, biomedicine and social science. The widening array of programs and the sheer growth in volume of applicants and awards over this short period of time is unprecedented. As a result, researchers throughout Qatar and the world have come to see QNRF as a serious means for participation in cutting-edge research.
An advanced approach to grant submission
As more and more investigators, from Qatar and abroad, apply for and receive funding, the management of submissions for grants becomes a complex affair. Although, many systems exist around the world to manage research funds, leadership at QNRF decided to build its own from scratch, which allowed for the creation of dynamic and intelligent features as a response to the challenge of a high volume of tracked projects involving international investigator collaborations.
"When we first started UREP, we said send us your feedback by e-mail," said Mahmoud Talaat, Support Services Manager at QNRF, "it was a semi-manual process. But then we received over a hundred proposals for that program and we knew we needed to streamline things. We faced resistance about going online. After all, NSF didn't go online for 45 years, even when the technology was available. But this is how we began, and we believed in starting where others ended."
While the National Priorities Research Program and Young Scientists Research Experience Program took shape, in-house developers created solutions in tandem for all stages of the funding process. They are hosted at QNRF's submission website www.QNRFsubmission.org, not to be mistaken for the main www.QNRF.org general information site (which was recently revamped and discussed later in this article).
"Everything that we are using was created in house by QNRF staff," Talaat said. "All of our online solutions, websites, everything is done here. Our Head of IT oversees full-time developers, administrators and a whole team that works behind the scenes. We have a very creative group of people."
This high-tech approach to building a proposal system from scratch means that, unlike other grant management systems such as Fastlane—the US National Science Foundation's funding portal, which supports only proposal submissions—QNRF's portal involves and connects everyone at every stage of the process, from submission to evaluation.
"We made a big move for a funding agency; for the first time, we were sharing proposals with peer reviewers online," Talaat said. "Other funding agencies don't have the member's area online for peer reviewers."
Regulations with good reasons
The website has been reviewed as user friendly in surveys. Yet there still are challenges in terms of making sure applicants are aware of some unique requirements. For instance, the system requires that all collaborating researchers be invited and accept a role before the proposal can be processed. Additionally, applicants abroad sometimes don't realize that 50 percent of their project must be conducted within Qatar to receive funding from QNRF, Talaat said.
To make sure that all researchers have a fair chance, the system requires that a research plan be submitted by the deadline. "There are a whole list of items that they submit, and they can change anything after the fact except the research plan," Talaat said. "The peer reviewers evaluate everything together but we want to give everyone the same chance because if you allow people to modify the research plan after the submission that might be giving an additional advantages to some while others honor the deadline."
Perhaps the most unexpected and misunderstood aspect of the proposal submission process is the grant management channel, Talaat said. As the research plan is submitted for consideration, the system requires investigators to fill in information about specific aims and goals along the timeline of funds dispersal.
"At the end of the day, our goal was to reduce paperwork and get a clear idea of project goals at various stages," Talaat said. "It may be more work for people at the time of submission, but if they are awarded then they will do much better in the long run—they will just tick boxes all the way down the line during a review—and if they encounter setbacks in real time, the system displays fields where they can enter explanations."
While the peer reviewers, a range of experts from prestigious institutions around the world, will evaluate proposals for their scientific merit, QNRF will initially screen all projects for compliance with the RFP.
"We screen almost everything," Talaat said. "This year we have added a condition where the lead PI needs to have at least five publications in peer-reviewed journals.
"In the end, we listen to people, which is important. We conduct surveys for users and use the feedback to modify our systems. We are always improving."
QNRF.org update reflects users' preferences
This refreshing, ever-evolving approach to the submission site extends as well to QNRF's main site. The organization recently announced a revamp of their main site, giving it a completely new look and layout. The site is designed to be more user-friendly, with information more easily accessible by visitors and the research community.
The overall site theme focuses down on three purposes: highlighting QNRF funding programs and activities; showcasing the outcome of QNRF funded projects, and telling the success stories resultant from QNRF's support to the world.
The design is careful, reflecting QNRF's dedication and response to those who have been using the website over the past several years. The most commonly-requested information to date has been processed and is prominently displayed in the center of the home page. And one can access information about specific events through the banners at the top of the page.
Here are some of the many new features of the website:
Awarded projects search: The new website allows the user to search for QNRF funded and awarded projects. The search engine is built on comprehensive filters that make getting the requested information fast and accurate.
Research Matters repositories: The new site features a repository of all episodes of the QNRF radio program Research Matters, aired at QF Radio.
Quick links: On the right side of the homepage, quick links direct users to QNRF funding and sponsorship programs in addition to the calendar of events and the online submission (OSS) website login.
Social networks: You can now follow QNRF via social networks like Facebook and Twitter by clicking the links at the bottom of the homepage.
Don't wait. Take a tour of the new website now at www.qnrf.org.