Dr. Michael Reksulak is the Director for Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at the Qatar National Research Fund. He is also the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Melton Foundation, which is the only global Fellowship program that unites a network of more than 450 Fellows to act as global citizens addressing local and global challenges throughout their lives.
Previously a Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Economics, he has been a tenured Associate Professor of Economics at Georgia Southern University, a Director of the Economics Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and a Senior Social Scientist at the NSF’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.
His research on public policy, political economy, antitrust and regulation, experimental methods and industrial organization, has been published in leading journals, such as Theory and Decision, Public Choice, Constitutional Political Economy, Economics & Politics and the Review of Industrial Organization. He is the lead editor of the recently published The Elgar Companion to Public Choice, 2nd Edition.
Since 2006 he has published 200 newspaper columns on topics in the fields of business and economics.
As a reservist, he has also been deployed on several NATO peacekeeping missions. His latest promotion was to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
A graduate of Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena (Economics) and the University of Kent at Canterbury (European Management Science), he holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Mississippi.
Q: What is your role at QNRF?
A: My title is “Director of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities” - which means I’m the leader of a team of people dealing with all the proposals submitted to QNRF in these fields. I’m also a part of the Directors' Committee, where we try to match what QNRF is doing with the Qatar National Vision and the Qatar National Research Strategy to move Qatar forward.
My role is to be a champion for the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. Around the world, when funding research, there is often a tendency to concentrate on those scientists who are close to the market and Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities are often a bit further away from what you can easily transform into a commercial product. Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities are important to the project Qatar is undertaking where we are trying to move from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy.
You can have all kinds of technological advances, and be very happy with the state of your energy research and computing research and health research - but in order for this to lead to something which is sustainable, you need to make sure you bring the people along with you. Bringing the people along means not shackling them and pulling them, but rather, giving the people the skills and the knowledge, enabling value changes, cultural changes, and making them aware of what it takes to have a sustainable, knowledge-based economy.
There is a role in almost every project for some kind of aspect of social science and humanities. I have seen this at the National Science Foundation as well. But then, when it comes to the definition of that role, it sometimes is just a paragraph at the end of a project, and that’s where we - as QNRF and myself personally - need to push more towards having social sciences as an integral part of cross-cutting projects. That means from the very beginning of planning a project you have social scientists and humanists working together with researchers looking at a technological problem, because if you embed them from the very beginning then you have a better chance for this to work. If its not an integral part with the same importance, then you won’t get to the point where you want to get to.
Q: Are there pure, standalone projects in Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities as well?
A: We are talking about the human condition and if you look at Qatar National Vision and the Qatar National Research Strategy, its all about the human condition. What in the end is all this planning going to lead to when successful? It will lead to a society that has a secure economic basis, with a reasonably high standard of living. We’re talking about people’s lives. Humanities and social sciences are all about studying people’s lives. So theres a lot we can learn by applying what social scientists and people who work in the humanities have already discovered. So its partly a question of having the research culture here and having the human capacity here, not only in the energy and computing fields, but also in the humanities to ask the question: how did we get here, where do we want to go, why do we want to go there, what’s the best way to get there, is it going to be sustainable?
In my mind, this is part and parcel of where we want a society to go to in the next 15 years. We want to get to a point where we have a really good understanding of how a knowledge-based economy, being a hub of sporting events, conferences, being the centre for a number of world-class research projects, how that economy and society has to be structured.
Q: So what is Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities’ role in a knowledge-based economy?
A: There are all kinds of concepts out there. One could look at what kind of trade in knowledge-intensive goods do we have, or what percentage of people work in knowledge-intensive jobs, but there’s no threshold where you can say ’now we’re in a knowledge-based economy’. But you can think of it as an economy that relies on the creation, maintenance and management of knowledge. But this is all stuff that’s hard to define. How do you produce knowledge? We have advanced industrialized nations, where if there is anybody who has a knowledge-based economy, it’s them. But we have little understanding of getting from where Qatar is now, to that stage. And that’s where only the social sciences and humanities can help us figure out the institutional basis for that. If you look at the culture of Qatar and the QNV2030, you have human development, social development, economic development and you have ecological development. Except for the last one, all are social science and humanities.
Q: How will the Arts contribute to Qatar’s culture over the next 15 years?
A: I’m no expert in the arts, but I am a consumer of arts, and as a human being I know that arts are a reflection of a society. When you look at the work of artists, and you let them work freely, you will learn a lot about a society, and so in that sense I see an important role for the arts in Qatar because it will tell you something about how the society sees itself develop over time. What major issues are people uncomfortable to talk about but they can express themselves through the arts? If you drive with open eyes though Qatar, and you look at art that is being displayed, you do see some of the ambitious goals. The foetuses outside the new Sidra hospital on this major thoroughfare, thats a signal that Qatar is addressing some of the tensions in society. Change is coming - how does society integrate this tension to make it productive, and the arts, in my mind, plays a big role in that.
Q: How does one go about applying for a grant for a Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities project?
A: It’s the same as any other field - not harder, and not easier. Everything I have seen here since my arrival is that it is an absolutely professionally-run funding organisation that has best practices in place - sometimes better practices in place. It is very competitive in all areas. Sometimes people say ‘is it unfair for us to have to compete with energy and ICT and health'. The thing we need to work on and to convince people is that the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities are important in the minds of people who set policies for Qatar. People look at the Grand Challenges and they see energy security, cyber security, water security and since last year, integrated healthcare. These are all grand challenges in human capacity building too.
The EU summarised it thus, in Humanities and Social Science in Horizon 2020 Societal Challenges:
Addressing the Societal Challenges necessitates what might be called ‘deep change’: not only change in technology and know-how but also in behaviour and, more fundamentally, changes in people’s pervasive values, cultures of practice and modes of communication.
That’s what we need in Qatar and thats why I came here.
Q: What advice would you give to someone applying for a research grant in Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities?
A: There are a couple of aspects to that question. Firstly, QNRF’s goal is to fund world-class research. Anybody who thinks about applying to QNRF, in any field, should think of where can I push the boundaries? It is often not inappropriate to try something that has been done somewhere else, in Qatar. But it would be much more exciting to me and to the reviewers of the proposals, to see cutting-edge research - something new that is more than the local application of studies we have seen elsewhere. That’s important, but its also important to get to the next stage where the research done here is really at the cutting edge.
Secondly, make good use of the opportunities that QNRF provides to collaborate with the best researchers in the world. By that I mean don’t just let those people drive the process, but be an equal partner. You’re at the same level as the best in the world, and you need to make that clear in the submission of the proposal and also in the implementation of the project. So equal partners should have equal responsibilities and equal credit in everything.
There are many pure social science proposals, but we also look out for the interdisciplinary proposals. We are learning all the time about how to deal with true interdisciplinary proposals, but we have enough experienced people in QNRF to handle this. Seek out - don’t wait for somebody to tell you there should be some social science in this part. Be the proactive partner and say - since everything comes back to the human condition and how we change behaviours and how we implement these new technologies - where can we offer solutions to our colleagues in other disciplines - and where is that a valuable research project?
Q: What would a success story look like for Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities funding in five or 15 years time?
A: One thing I would view as a failure is if, in five years time, we as a society working towards Qatar’s success, haven’t succeeded in having a truly Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities topic recognised as a Grand Challenge. Human capacity development needs to be recognised on a larger level as a Grand Challenge. The term is ambiguous enough to allow for all kinds of collaborations between the sciences.
By human capacity we mean a few things. The capacity we have here in terms of scientists who can do the research is one thing, but human capacity development is looking at the whole person, behavioural traits, looking at incentives people have, and how to structure these incentives to move us forward. But also a large part of it is what do we do in the field of education. We fund a lot of research on that and everybody realises that education is a basic part of having a successful and sustainable society that is not based exclusively on carbon resources. It’s not just training teachers, there are other organisations and ministries here that look at this. What is it that dissuades young men from wanting to succeed in fields other than business or the military? We want them to succeed in science after taking advantage of all the opportunities they have here. That’s human capacity development. Policy makers are aware of that, but the pay-off for this is long-term - so it needs to be one of the Grand Challenges.
The other thing is to attract and keep those talented and inquisitive people here, who - over the last five or six years - worked in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities area, in a large part because of QNRF funding.
In five years time it should be much easier to recruit people in terms of regulatory frameworks and make it a process that moves faster. Have ways to quickly bring people in when we see a need and that’s not just for Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, but all fields. But it is a labour market issue, which is an economic issue, so something very close to my heart, as an economist by training.
There are already signs of success - many conferences come to Doha now. It’s a great place to meet scientists. It’s a place which has the advantage of geography, where everything is close together. It would be great to see maybe a law school that attracts people here as there is much work to do on regulatory and legal frameworks as the country develops.
We’d like to see a lot more PhD programs. A lot more people with PhDs with from organisations within Qatar, who may do some post-doc work somewhere else in the world - and probably should do that - but then they come back and say, this is where I want to have my career.
Thank you very much Dr Reksulak for this fascinating insight into how social science and the humanities pervade every aspect of the creation and adoption of new technologies.