In labs across the United States and much of Europe, researchers struggle against tight budgets and extreme competition for funding. But in Qatar, a tiny emirate jutting into the Persian Gulf, the problem appears to be how to spend the huge sums the fabulously wealthy state-let is devoting to building capacity for cutting-edge research. Funding flows as freely as the oil and natural gas that produce the profits that fill Qatar’s bulging coffers.
Nor is Qatar the only oil-rich Arabian country bidding for recognition as a significant scientific player. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in neighboring Saudi Arabia boasts facilities and budgets that could, with the right kind of researchers on board, give it international stature.
The vaulting ambitions of these and other formerly backward -- and still very conservative -- Islamic monarchies can spell significant opportunities for able and adventurous scientists with a yen for both state-of-the-art equipment and very comfortable (if isolated and culturally challenging) lifestyles.
Whether working in the gulf is a chance worth exploring depends on how you’ll feel living there. In June, I got a first-hand look at Qatar’s campaign for scientific eminence, and its distinctive lifestyle, when the Qatar Foundation (QF), the emirate's main educational and scientific organization, helped host the seventh World Conference of Science Journalists. Originally slated for Cairo, the meeting was relocated to Qatar’s capital of Doha after Egypt’s January revolution made the original venue unfeasible. More than 700 science scribes from more than 80 countries converged on Doha’s expansive Education City campus, where QF proudly displayed the amazing research facilities it has constructed.
The power of petroleum
Doha is amazing, too. A forest of garish and fantastical skyscrapers plunked in the desert near the sea, it is a giant boomtown serving the petroleum and financial industries. With more than a million expatriates from everywhere in the world doing much of the actual work, from high-level professional and intellectual occupations to humble service tasks, Qatar’s quarter-million citizens enjoy something resembling a trust-fund lifestyle, many holding high-paying jobs in organizations where the hired help from abroad produce most of the results. The lingua franca is English.
The boomtown culture discourages understatement, and every imaginable symbol of wealth is flaunted enthusiastically. Top hotels offer Jaguar taxis. Jewelry shops display intricate gold necklaces the size of the chest protectors worm by baseball catchers. The emir’s horse farm, which breeds world-champion Arabians, includes carpeted barns, an equine swimming pool and spa, and a state of the art genetics lab.
Along with expensive cars and jewelry, Qatar is active in the market for science and scientists. The emir, a graduate of the United Kingdom’s Royal Sandhurst Military Academy, and Sheikha Mozah, his university-educated second wife (of the three he is currently married to), who is chair of QF, have stated their intention to turn the country into a “knowledge economy” before the oil runs out. As part of that effort, they aim to bring topflight research to Qatar.
In contrast to the Saudis, the Qataris are pursuing that goal by importing name-brand education and research institutions from abroad. Six prominent American universities, each an acknowledged leader in a particular field, offer programs in extravagant buildings at Education City. The science selections include petroleum and some other engineering specialties from Texas A&M University, computing from Carnegie Mellon University, and biomedical sciences for the Weill Cornell Medical College. The agreements between QF and the schools require that they present degree programs exactly as they do at home. Texas A&M students in Qatar therefore take the same required course in Texas state government as their counterparts in College Station.
Beyond the university branches, three specialized independent research institutes, in computing, biomedical research, and environment and energy, are being developed. The computing institute, the only one now running, will specialize in Arabic computer applications, says spokesperson Bradley Steffens, a Californian. Twenty-one international investigators are now at work, and the institute -- reportedly funded to the tune of $165,000,000 over the next 5 years -- plans to attract 80 more. The state-of-the-art, 300-bed Sidra research hospital, slated to have a large basic and clinical science arm, is nearing completion. The Qatar Science and Technology Park, located in Education City, houses labs of a number of international companies.
Have expertise, will travel?
The most desired scientific hires are Arabs who have gone abroad and attained excellent training or even eminence in their fields. But qualified researchers from other cultures and nations are also welcome, including well-credentialed women. New Yorker Benjamin Shykind, an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology, has spent the last year and a half at Weill Cornell in Qatar running a lab that studies camel olfaction, which, he says, can provide important insights into general processes of olfaction.
Weill Cornell’s postdocs are also international, but many of the technicians working in the labs are Qatari women graduates of a special program at Qatar University.
Able people recruited from abroad live very well in Qatar, at least materially, and lots of them say they love it. The advantages include excellent pay and benefits, generous vacations, very comfortable housing, easily affordable household help, and high-quality schools that follow the curriculum of one’s home country. Many Western expats reportedly find it hard to return to middle-class reality back home.
Terms of employment for scientific personnel appear to vary. Some people are regular faculty members or employees of the home campuses, or of foreign companies, in Qatar on either short- or longer-term assignments. Others are employees or contractors with institutions based in Qatar.
The lavish emollients used to lure talent are, for some people, offset by considerable downsides. The summer temperature -- about 47˚C while the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists was meeting -- makes outdoor exercise, or even crossing the street, almost unbearable for about half the year. Like the other Arab oil states, Qatar does not allow foreigners to become citizens; families from abroad can live in the country for generations without being permitted to put down official roots. Qatari citizens, reportedly, are generally uninterested in mixing socially with the hired help, and in any case tend to follow very conservative Islamic social patterns. They wear what amounts to a uniform that proclaims their separateness from the polyglot mass that serves them: The men wear dazzlingly white gowns and headgear. The women are swathed from head to toe in black gowns and head scarves, often with faces and even eyes covered by veils. (In the labs, however, observant Muslim women wear lab coats over pants or skirts, plus scarves fitted close to the head.)
Qatar's bureaucracy can be daunting, reportedly, and the legal system does not match Western standards. No religion but Islam has a notable public presence; the stunning structure housing the Georgetown University international relations program, for example, has Muslim prayer rooms (as did every public building that I visited) -- but no symbols referring to the university's Jesuit identity -- which is prominently expressed on the home campus in Washington, D.C. Christians are allowed to gather for worship, but I’m told that all of Doha's Christian expats share a single building. Thanks to the conservative religious culture, alcohol can be hard to find. Some foreigners find the adjustment too difficult and don't stay long.
Can science be bought?
Qatar’s investment in imported talent and technology already appears to be paying off. A Weil Cornell team, for example, recently scored a publication in Nature Biotechnology with the first report of the genome of the date palm, an economically important plant in Arabia.
Still, whether money can buy scientific eminence remains an open question. Almost limitless loot certainly can't hurt -- making available even the priciest equipment, along with excellent salaries and benefits -- but is generous funding sufficient for world-class research? Can money alone attract, nurture, and hold a vital community of scientific thinkers in such apparently isolated social conditions? We'll see. But as long as Qatar is willing to spend huge sums on the experiment, the employment and research opportunities there and in the other desert oil states are no mirage.
Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.