QNRF Newsletter Archive

Dr. Abdulnasser Al-Ansari, Deputy Executive Director

Dr. Abdulnasser Al-Ansari, Deputy Executive Director of Qatar National Research Fund
Formerly the Director-Technical, QNRF, Dr. Abdulnasser Al-Ansari was recently promoted to the position of QNRF's Deputy Executive Director. He holds a PhD degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Miami, Florida, USA, with a focus on biometrics, computer vision and pattern recognition as well as signal and image processing. Before joining QNRF he was a Naval Engineering Officer with the Qatari Emiri Naval Forces. Dr. Al-Ansari possesses a wealth of skills in leadership from various positions at the navy. His past research involvement in graduate school gained him experience in research collaboration, peer reviewing, proposal preparations and fund management. He is a senior Associate Editor of the Journal of Intelligent & Robotic Systems.

Q: What initially attracted you to QNRF?
A: : It was while I was at grad school that I became very passionate about research. During my PhD program alone I published 12 peer-reviewed articles – four of them were high impact journal articles. When I returned to Qatar there wasn’t the opportunity to continue my research at the time, especially with the jobs I took at the Navy. I heard a lot about QF and QNRF and their initiative to unlock human potential and create a research culture and I thought that I could really contribute and offer something different and needed for the country, especially knowing that they had few Qataris and there was a Qatarization effort going on.

I started in QNRF as a Program Manager, Electrical Engineering than after a year I was offered the position of overseeing the whole technical team and shortly after that we joined the R&D section of Qatar Foundation. During that restructuring period, this position became vacant and I was nominated to take the position. My job is now to shadow the Executive Director and make sure that we, as QNRF, can execute our mission. I have been now with QNRF for about three years and it has been a wonderful experience.

Q: What does a normal day for you entail?
A: Basically we are funders, we either initiate new funding programs or manage those programs. Management takes up much of the time of our daily work, yet I try to spend as much time for thinking strategically about our vision and mission and future initiatives as laid down in QNRF’s five-year strategic plan. If you look at the typical award project it has a pre-award phase and a post-award phase. Pre-award has many steps and procedures from the moment people apply, to when the grants are awarded. After the grant period is the post-award phase, where we finalise all of the documentation and paperwork.

We follow up each project every six months, which would involve looking at progress reports. My job is to make sure all of this runs smoothly as far as operations and management are concerned. I oversee the processes and steps, and I can intervene at any point and look at things from a quality control aspect. Often we have issues with policies which shouldn’t be broken, between funder and researcher. Some issues are unique and have to be looked at very closely, this is when I get involved and we discuss it amongst ourselves and with the Executive Director.

Q: How is QNRF helping to foster a culture of research in Qatar?
A: Well, before QNRF there was very little research done in Qatar. Qatar was a nascent society. The new programs, such as NPRP, were basically just to get research going. We wanted researchers to get active and start research. We named it after Qatar’s national interests, yet we really didn’t care much who we funded. We funded a wide variety of projects, always on a competitive basis, submitted by eligible researchers coming from both inside and outside Qatar, in all disciplines as long as the competition and quality standards were met. Why? To promote research, researchers and promote research culture. We did that for five years, always monitoring our KPIs – key performance indicators. We would look at the research output. We would look at indicators which would show us how those researchers were doing; publications, citations, (number and quality) and patents. We have now reached a level where there is enough of a research culture now, in Qatar, with the help of QF and schools etc. and the foreign campuses within QF, then the eco-system is now mature enough to look back at five years ago and begin the new phase. We will concentrate in the next phase on implementing our new business plan under QF R&D and fund potential research of national interest as per the Qatar National Research Strategy (QNRS).

We started in 2006 slowly with what was available level of maturity in undergrad school at the time. Therefore we first launched UREP, the Undergraduate Research Experience Program, and we are now looking forward to cycles 15 and 16. This gave undergrads the opportunity to do hands-on research. Then we set up the NPRP for the professional researcher and now we are now in cycle 7. This gives us an indicator of achievement not only in Qatar, but also internationally. We created a model which had, at its heart collaboration with established researchers worldwide. Since Qatar was not mature in a research sense, we would rely on the maturity of international scholars for the NPRP and initial results were impressive and continue to be so in the present.

Then, since we wanted to create a research culture at an early age, we needed to go back, to the school kids, and implant the habits of curiosity-driven research. So we introduced SSREP – the Secondary School Research Experience Program. This program has just completed its third cycle.

As we reassess every year and look at our portfolio, we realised there is a gap there between the young graduate, the PhD and the professional researcher. There are young graduates who cannot compete in the NPRP, so we decided, after consultation with stakeholders, that there is a need for a program aimed at those young scientists - so we introduced the Junior Scientist Research Experience Program (JSREP). It's a smaller version of the NPRP, with the aim of training those young graduates to lead their own research. With the training they get on this 3-year program, we hope they will learn enough to, at some future point, apply for NPRP funding.

We are looking again at our portfolio and business plan and we feel there is demand for support of graduate student by a new funding program that will cover the PhD level. We are always trying to fill the gaps where there is a need or stimulate activities in line with the overall mission of the QF R&D, so we recently introduced GSRA – the Graduate Student Research Award. This program provides funding opportunities for students pursuing their PhD degree program. We believe that graduate students are the driving engine of research in academic institutions. This month we will even go further and launch PDRA – the Postdoctoral Research Award. A postdoc is someone who just finished their PhD and is willing to work with a lead PI on a research topic. JSREP gives the lead to the fresh graduate, but with PDRA we are supporting the hard-worker, the research labourer. GSRA and PDRA ultimately support the goal of QF R&D to either train or recruit more than 2000 researchers during the next five years.

Q: So QNRF is offering funding across the full-spectrum, from professional researchers, down to secondary schools. Do you have plans to go even younger?
A: Because we want to implant a research culture from an early age, we are going down to middle school with MSREP – Middle School Research Experience Program. MSREP aims to stimulate curiosity thinking from STEM subjects taught in school. This is still in the design phase, and we hope to launch it in 2014. And there’s more.

Q: QNRF has been a large part of revolutionizing the research scene in Qatar over the last few years, looking ahead to the next 10 years, what do you see will be the major changes?
A: Well, I can tell you about the next five years at least, because we have a business plan for the next five years and we know what we want to do over that period. There will be new programs, of course. QF R&D is going to enable research through their institutes, research and development though QSTP, and administer funding of all this research through QNRF. We have new programs in the pipeline, and I mentioned GSRA and PDRA above which are just two of them.

In the upcoming period we will have a joint funding opportunity, where we will jointly fund projects with either another sister funding agency, internationally, or an institution. For most of our projects now, the lead PI cannot get funding from other agencies, in addition to that obtained from QNRF. This isn’t yet allowed for intellectual property purposes. The QF R&D will work on the IP policies so that it will allow or manage the lead PIs to work on projects that are co-funded from QNRF and others.

In addition we will have the Grand Challenge Program. Grand Challenge research topics are those which have the highest priority for Qatar. They were recently identified by the R&D. Indeed, the theme of the new QF Annual Research Conference will be based around these Grand Challenges. We already fund projects of interest to Qatar, but we will zoom in on those projects that focus on the Grand Challenges.

We will be working on the Excellence Chair Program, where highly-talented researchers will be given a high-level of funding, for five to ten years to establish a research center or work on research here with research institutes or universities. This is a program which is very much still in the concept phase.

We will also be looking at small business innovation programs next year, for entrepreneurs to apply for funding from QNRF - and of course we will continue to invest in building human capital, research culture and infrastructure. Probably we will start a program on research infrastructure. It will support those researchers who require equipment, but which is expensive and may require years to assemble.

We will look at helping create a science museum. It's still a concept, five years away maybe, but would be an interactive experience to get people. especially young people, enthused about science.

Q: To a researcher who hasn’t heard of what is happening in Qatar, how would you sell this as a place to conduct research?
A: I would recommend that person look at our webpage, and look at the opportunities available in the NPRP. Actually anyone from outside Qatar, who comes to reside here may take advantage of a lot of our programs.

I would encourage more overseas-based senior researchers to examine collaborative opportunities, which are in his/her area and try to form a relationship with researchers here to allow them to apply for NPRP funding. Indeed on our website, local researchers post interests for collaboration with international researchers, and vice versa.

Q: So collaboration is key to moving research forward in Qatar?
A: Of course, collaboration is key. Collaboration is a good thing as it gathers researchers to work on common problems, but with multiple approaches and viewpoints. It helps a great deal in transfer of knowledge and skills. It is a mean for sharing resources and infrastructure. It expands research networks. It is these collaborations which will help us achieve these ambitious goals over the next five years.

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