Indonesia's Sharp Minds Face Cash Woes

Despite a common perception that Indonesia’s research and development programs are sorely wanting, some of the country’s think tanks and scientists have nonetheless managed to win international accolades for their work. Still, many in the scientific community are hardly pleased with the government’s efforts to bolster R&D. 

On Thursday, the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities announced that the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) ranked 99th out of 7,532 research and development institutions surveyed globally. It was a significant jump from LIPI’s 590th position, which it logged in Webometrics’ January survey.

The July survey also ranked another Indonesian research agency, the Center for Agricultural Research and Development at the Ministry of Agriculture, in 290th position.

Earlier this year, two think tanks based in Jakarta — the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — were among the top research agencies listed in the “2011 Global Go To Think Tank Report,” issued by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program of the University of Pennsylvania’s international relations program, which assessed 25,000 think tanks from 182 countries.

The report, released in January, ranked ERIA in 30th position among the world’s top international economic think tanks, while the CSIS ranked 38th out of the top 50 think tanks worldwide outside of the United States.

ERIA executive director Hidetoshi Nishimura said that although the report was released in January, the public had little information about it.

“Our institution is the only one based in an Asean country … included in the top 30 of the world’s international economic think tanks. We achieved this within just three years, since we were established in 2008,” Nishimura told the Jakarta Globe.

He added that the impressive ranking was made possible in part by ERIA’s increased involvement in Asean affairs. Indonesia’s chairmanship of the regional bloc beginning in 2011 coincided with a greater profile for the think tank.

ERIA has produced research and policy recommendations for Asean’s anticipated economic integration in 2015, a plan that is expected to catalyze wider integration with the countries of East Asia.

He added that ERIA was not systematically involved in the Asean leadership activities last year, but that has changed recently, allowing ERIA to grow in reputation and stature internationally. “This is also because of the strong support of the Indonesian government,” Nishimura said.

However, support for ERIA as a research agency doesn’t come only from Indonesia, which has served as its host country since ERIA was given the status of an international organization in 2008.

ERIA was established in 2007 by leaders attending the East Asia Summit, comprised of the 10 Asean countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, with an initial financial endowment from the Japanese government.

Australia, New Zealand and India have contributed additional funding to ERIA in recent years. At the Bali Asean Summit in 2011, Asean members decided to make a contribution of $100,000.

Funding fortunes

The support that ERIA enjoys is in contrast to what LIPI has available to it to finance its research projects.

Bogie Soedjatmiko, LIPI’s head of cooperation and science outreach, said the government has allocated Rp 700 billion ($74 million) to LIPI for this year, about half of which is spent on daily operational expenses. The other half is used to finance the research projects of LIPI’s 1,400 scientists of varying expertise.

“It is far from sufficient to fund research projects that we have; [we have] to stretch a project to be conducted over multiple years when we could actually finish it in a single year if we had enough money to conduct the research,” Bogie said, adding that on average, a research project costs Rp 200 million to Rp 250 million, though some highly prioritized ones can cost up to Rp 400 million.

Bogie said Indonesia could not afford to wait any longer to put a greater focus on research and development in order to boost its economic competitiveness.

He said the world’s economic powerhouses were countries with solid research and development programs and that Indonesia could not rely on its non-renewable natural resources such as mining, oil and gas — resources that will eventually be depleted.

“We can’t wait any longer, we have to start now because it takes decades to cultivate the culture of research and development. Otherwise, we will not be able to compete,” Bogie said.

Research funding in Indonesia has long been limited. Bogie estimated that in the past decade, funding in Indonesia is just 0.03 percent of GDP. But what is lacking, he said, is not money but political will.

“The government has the money, but it all depends on the political will to allocate a bigger budget for research and development,” he said.

Ibnu Maryanto, a leading researcher from LIPI, concurred that a lack of funding was the main problem for Indonesia’s scientists to conduct research, notably for those working in the field of biodiversity, considered one of flora- and fauna-rich Indonesia’s greatest assets.

Ibnu, who is an expert in bats and mice, said Indonesian biologists’ expertise is recognized worldwide, as evidenced by the high number of citations of their research.

“But most of those published research projects were conducted with foreign grants or cooperation in which they are published in international journals,” Ibnu said, adding that the government has slashed funding for biology research projects by 80 percent this year due to rising oil prices.

Apart from more funding, Ibnu said what Indonesian scientists hope will cultivate a more robust research culture is reduced bureaucracy for those seeking to procure research-related materials and equipment.

“The government should also provide tax incentives for chemical materials imported for research purposes, otherwise they are too costly,” he said.

He also warned of alleged theft of local specimens by foreign researchers conducting joint research with local universities, and urged the Ministry of Research and Technology, as the body responsible for issuing research permits to foreigners, to scrutinize its monitoring of foreign scientists doing research in the archipelago.

According to Ibnu, many foreign researchers were able to conduct cooperative research with local universities directly due to regional autonomy.

“Indonesia is being swarmed by foreign scientists, especially those conducting biological research projects,” Ibnu said.

“They should be closely monitored, otherwise there is a loophole for specimen theft.”

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