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Dr. Thomas Zacharia
Wael Khedr
/ Categories: Interviews

Dr. Thomas Zacharia

Dr. Thomas Zacharia received a PhD in Engineering from Clarkson University in the field of computational materials science. Prior to his new role at Qatar Foundation, he served as Deputy Laboratory Director and Chief Research Officer of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, overseeing annual expenditures of $1.6 billion throughout a range of sectors, including energy and engineering sciences, computing and computational sciences, life and environmental sciences, and national security.

Q: What attracted you to Qatar and its research program?

A: I was attracted to the Qatar Foundation and its efforts to facilitate an ambitious research agenda in the country. Science knows no borders, so the research carried out here will serve not only the country but also the larger regional and global community. I am very pleased to have become part of what represents a truly unique opportunity to make a contribution to the country's research enterprise. Qatar brings together an ambitious national vision, political will, and focused financial resources to carry it forward in achieving the goals and ambitions set forth in Qatar National Vision 2030, particularly to enhance the country's social, human, economic and environmental development.

I find this situation extremely positive as it not only creates a "can-do" attitude from the top down, but also attracts more talented people to join the effort to advance the country's research, development and innovation agenda. And as I see the momentum building and flowing through to the infrastructure, I feel that I have arrived as Qatar reaches a tipping-point, where we are about to witness a transformation in terms of moving ever closer to fulfilling the nation's ambitions to become a global hub for research and development. This is a very, very exciting time to be here, and I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute to this effort.

Q:It has been described that you will be 'contributing to QF's overall mission by advancing and promoting the organization's research initiatives.' Can you please elaborate on these ideas in terms of some specific ways that you see yourself doing this and the ways given your impressive background in the US—that you see yourself offering seasoned perspectives to Qatar's research programs?

A: Although it will take me some time to settle in and truly appreciate the depth of what has already been achieved here, I can already see the potential. I have come from an environment built up over the last 70 years. That sort of background means that there are well-established administrative routines, policies and procedures already in place. There are also mechanisms in place to govern the research, and I know that we have similar structures in place here within Qatar Foundation. And I have the added benefit of having been an investigator myself, so I believe that a win-win strategy will need to reflect the aspirations and capabilities of both the funding agencies and the researchers.

The early stages in which Qatar finds its research infrastructure can be seen in a positive light. Just as, for example, countries that had not yet deployed a fixed line telephone network have now been able to leapfrog the old technology and install information superhighways based on mobile technologies and even 4G networks, Qatar too has been able to harness its ambitions and the experiences of the global research, development and innovation communities to create a realistic fast-track plan to conduct world class, collaborative scientific research in state-of-the-art facilities. And the collaboration aspect is extremely important when you are still working towards building a critical mass of indigenous researchers long term goal.

Q:The research community in Qatar has flourished in just the past five years, how is this growth being tracked so that the full potential of all of the sectors here are explored in terms of R&D?

A: This is a good point, how do we know that the funds are being invested wisely and what is the return on that investment likely to be?

With particular respect to QNRF, the first cycles of the funding programs attracted a greater number of proposals, from all disciplines, than had been anticipated and proved to be successful beyond anyone's wildest imagination. And one must also bear in mind that the first phase of QNRF's mission has been to create a research culture. One may ask why not fund more proposals but you will always find yourself referring back to the mission and vision which was to advance the research culture by building human capital (and physical infrastructure). Having said that, since its inception, QNRF has diligently measured the output of these projects using a set of key performance indicators developed after extensive consultation with the SPD. They indicate the quantity and the quality of the output.

The next phase, which we are entering now, will reflect the revised Qatar National Research Strategy (QNRS) which was announced at the QF Annual Research Forum. QNRF has already put plans in place to track alignment of proposals and funded projects with the QNRS. This, together with the secondary stage infrastructure—by which I mean QSTP's mandate to identify and incubate those projects that are showing the most potential by the time they have reached the end of their QNRF funding phase—is designed to maximize the return on the investment being made by carrying basic and applied research further down the value chain to product development and use, for research that lends itself to commercialization. One must also remember that the very nature of research is unpredictable while there are no guarantees for "success," we have both a plan and mechanisms in place to ensure that the highest quality research will be carried out in Qatar.

Q: Now that the research community is established, what do you see happening in terms of focusing energies and fostering an environment for continued growth and knowledge transfer?

A: It is impressive to see the breadth and depth of the research community here in Qatar after just a few years. It forms a strong foundation for further growth and productivity. The Annual Research Forum was a good opportunity to hear about some of the impressive research being carried out here, and the launch of the QNRS will propel the research community to further expand and focus its efforts.

Q: Are there any particular Qatar institutions where you see an upcoming surge in research?

A: I can answer this question in three ways. First, it could be answered based on the amount of funds that have been invested over the last five years, in which case I would encourage readers to visit QNRF's website where they can glean all the statistics necessary to answer this very interesting question. I think that everyone is aware of the biggest recipient of QNRF funding, Qatar University. And this allocation of funds has served as something of a catalyst as they have gone on to construct a superb research facility that will truly define them as a research institution.

Second, the answer could be based on the activity levels in the funded disciplines. Looking forward, one can see the huge investment being made in Sidra, for example, as well as research being carried out by Hamad Medical Corporation, Weill-Cornell Medical College-Qatar and the newer Qatar Biomedical Research Institute, so I think making a connection to bio-medical research should be fairly obvious, and we are extremely lucky in that respect as we have also been able to integrate and satisfy the religious and cultural considerations of performing such activities. That is something that deserves recognition in itself.

Third, the answer can also come from examination of the new QNRS, which calls for significant research in the areas of energy and environment, computing and information technologies, health and the life sciences, and social sciences, arts and humanities. The full spectrum of national universities, Education City universities, QF research and development entities, government ministries and agencies, and private sector partners will be needed to address this robust research agenda, so we are quite likely to see a significant surge in research in all these areas by all these institutions.

Q: What are your insights on the nature of research, development and patents in Qatar—in other words, how is this environment different than the one in the US, and what does this mean to both the researcher and the nation at large?

A: Research is spread geographically throughout the US research enterprise and across many disciplines. It also occurs on a much, much larger scale both financially and practically. Having said that, the US has 100 years of experience under its belt whilst Qatar's R&D enterprise is still in its relatively earlier stages; thus it would be unfair to draw a straight comparison, but Qatar can take advantage of earlier experiences in the global R&D community as its own R&D community continues to mature. Qatar does have an advantage though in that the research environment is fairy compact geographically and this makes the administration a lot easier than when you are dealing across 4,500 km for instance! Protecting Qatar's investment and ensuring that we really do receive a financial return on the investment is a very complex area - and as a patent holder myself I am speaking from experience - and we are currently reviewing the intellectual property position with a view to enhancing it. In terms of what all this means to the researchers here.

While some international researchers may have initial questions or doubts about coming here, once they do get here, they are impressed by the sheer driving force, commitment and dedication of everyone to make Qatar a global player in the world of research and development. Finally, I would like to stress that we have to take a long-term view of our investments. We have seen a dramatic surge in activity over the last few years, which is to be expected as a research enterprise is established and starts to grow. Now that we have a new national research strategy and a solid foundation for our research infrastructure, we must be good stewards of resources and ensure that our research addresses national priorities, builds national research capabilities, and maintains world-class standards of excellence. We will need to work together with funding agencies and researchers to hold ourselves accountable to these goals. Our new research strategy will enable the nation to gradually shift away from its heavy reliance on the petro-chemical sector to a more diversified economy, carrying out world-class research and building the infrastructure that will help the country achieve its vision for social, human, economic and environmental development.

Dr. Zacharia, this has been extremely insightful, we thank you very much for this interview and wish you the best of luck in your new role.

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