QNRF Newsletter Archive

Mahmoud Talaat, Director of Operations

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Mahmoud Talaat, Director of Operations
Over the past six and a half years, Mahmoud Talaat has worked his way from Support Services Manager at QNRF to Director of Operations. As this interview will attest, his growth mirrors that of the dynamic funding agency. With a deep understanding of ground-level operations, Mr. Talaat brings a unique degree of passion and insight to his position. He delights in the potential of Qatar and the talk of future programs and advancement at QNRF.

Q: What stands out and excites you about Qatar?
A: The growth that has happened in Qatar in the past ten years is amazing. When I first came here there were very few high rises. There was no Souq Waqif, only a little remnant was left from the original. There was barely any infrastructure. Most of the highways that you see now were not there.

Qatar is growing while keeping in mind the preservation of the real Arabic essence. Unlike Dubai, for example, which grew to be a cosmopolitan city. You can see it anywhere in the world—it’s not uniquely Dubai. It can be Singapore, it can be anywhere in the world. But Doha is growing while maintaining the essence of the Middle East. The original Doha is still there. It’s clear that they want to develop, but want to be Qatar at the end of the day.

Q: How would you say that QNRF is different than other funding agencies around the world?
A: QNRF went online immediately, from the first cycle of the NPRP (National Priorities Research Program); this is something unique. It took NIH years of experience to go online. We started that way from the beginning.

By the NPRP we developed our own website and submissions website. And later on, we developed our grant management tools, on demand, as we went. Our management tools are unique compared with NSF, NIH and other funding agencies. We work with reviewers from all over the world working with us and we hear comments from them … very nice comments about how innovative our solutions are. People even told us that we are light years ahead of other organizations—this is what they said, I didn’t say it myself. We receive a lot of compliments about our online tools. This has helped us spread our name worldwide and internationally.

We use the fact that we started online to our advantage. Other organizations are bigger, more established and have rules and regulations; to change a small thing in these organizations can take years and a huge effort. QNRF is different. We have the luxury of quickly modifying our systems. And we modify our systems without disturbing the experience for the people who use them.

When you talk to anybody here in Qatar—the people involved in research, the stakeholders and partners—you will see that all of them are praising QNRF executives for being good listeners. As an organization, that allows us to make things happen for the research community inside Qatar. Although we are a relatively young funding agency, the reputation of QNRF is very good worldwide and we are viewed as a mature funding agency.

Q: You are the Director of Operations, what does this role entail?
A: It means I am responsible for QNRF’s Finance Team, IT Team, Administration Team and QNRF Public Relations.

Q: Can you describe an average day in this role?
A: When we first started it was much easier to describe what was happening because there were less people involved in QNRF. But with the delegation of responsibilities to the managers and the heads of the departments that are reporting to me, I’m not involved anymore in the day-to-day work. I’m more on the strategic side of the business. We have weekly meetings. We have a communication strategy. We have an IT strategy. We have financial compliance manuals that we are updating and applying. And we have systems. So everything is working according to the systems. I’m more involved in the strategic and planning side of operations.

I was once very much involved. My phone number was on QNRF’s website for two years! That’s the good thing about QNRF now—there was a startup team, and I was the first full-time staff member coming in to work with this team. So I was doing everything. You couldn’t afford to let things go without getting involved. So I was involved in so many things. I learned so many things

We spent hours learning and reading about successful, established funding agencies. And when looked at QNRF models, we tried to start from where others ended, because they are different. We looked where they were and we started there and moved forward. That’s why the original business plan of QNRF did not have any IT solutions or online applications or peer reviewing process. All of these things were not part of QNRF’s original business plan. We learned, we looked and we started immediately from online.

I come from a different background—commercial business. Commercial business is a little bit different than non-profit business. In commercial business you want to do everything now and yesterday and the cycles are very aggressive. You need to tackle issues and you want to do things immediately. Whereas it’s a little more relaxed on the other side with the non-profit organizations. So coming with this kind of attitude helped a lot to make us an effective organization.

Now, when I talk about QNRF, I can tell you this is how we did it, how it was approved and how it was improved and then eventually where the room for improvement is. I can forecast now what can happen for QNRF in the next two years in terms of planning, how we can make it even better, because I know the issues that need to be developed.

Q: What are the things in your job that give you the most satisfaction, personally?
A: When we make a five-year plan, I find this a very satisfying process—to conduct gap [actual vs. potential performance] analysis, SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats] analysis. And I like seeing new processes coming from the QNRF team; for example, new compliance processes with the awarded institutions. This is amazing, when you see it happening and it’s moving forward and everybody is happy with it. That is a very satisfying feeling when you plan something, execute it and it’s happening. Not only this but people are appreciating the improvement. That’s why we look every day for new achievements.

Q: If you were to share one valuable insight with the research community, based on your insights, what would it be?
A: Researchers need to focus more on the Qatar National Research Strategy (QNRS). The Qatar national needs are very well identified now with the new structure of Qatar Foundation’s Research and Development Office. They finalized the QNRS in 2012. Researchers are free; they love to do their thing. But at the same time they need to look at what Qatar is trying to achieve and why Qatar is investing in research. They need to try to align their own personal research initiatives with the QNRS. That would be best for everybody; it will give more value to what QNRF is doing, because the outcome will be directly affecting the people of Qatar.

Q: What do you see in the future for Qatar, as a nation and in terms of research?
A: Qatar has succeeded in making a name for itself as a research center. People around the world know that there is some kind of research program in Qatar. My dream for Qatar is that it will be the hub of research, not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but also throughout the whole of the world. We will be specialized and attract more people in the coming few years. We have an ambitious plan to bring more people here, and it’s not about money. It’s about human capacity building, sustainability of research, the benefits of research to Qatar and to the world. These are the things that I hope that Qatar will achieve in a few years time.

Mahmoud, we thank you very much for this interview, and for sharing your experience and insights with us. We wish you well with your work both with QNRF and outside of the office.

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