Strange IndiaStrange India

Presidential candidate and former Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo addresses supporters during a campaign of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) at the Wates Square Park in Yogyakarta on January 28, 2024.

The presidential candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Ganjar Pranowo, addresses supporters.Credit: Devi Rahman/AFP/Getty

Indonesia goes to the polls to elect a new president today. It is the first presidential election since research organizations from 72 government ministries and institutes were merged into one superbody called the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). Some scientists say that BRIN, which was formed in 2021, has made research in Indonesia more unwieldy, and are calling for whoever wins the election to overhaul the agency.

BRIN was proposed in 2019 by President Joko Widodo during his successful campaign for a second term. The president appointed Megawati Soekarnoputri as head of BRIN’s steering committee. She is a former president and a fellow member of the political party that elevated Widodo to power, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). The appointment immediately raised eyebrows among Indonesia’s research community, who feared political interference in funding decisions.

BRIN was formed with the aim of streamlining the allocation of research funding in the country. But Indonesian politicians noted in January 2023 that the agency had set the lowest research budget in the nation’s history, at only 0.01% of gross domestic product (GDP). In 2023, BRIN received 6.39 trillion Indonesian rupiah (US$408 million) from the state budget, but allocated 64% to operational costs.

Under the agency, says Maxensius Tri Sambodo, a BRIN researcher studying energy policy and economic development, “the research climate has grown even more bureaucratic”. Sambodo adds that the merging of the agencies has also eroded the professional culture already established by different research groups, and has reduced consultation with researchers. “I feel that now critical thinking, questioning and open dialogues have been set aside. We’re often surprised by new regulations that didn’t go through the dialogue process,” he says.

Researchers across all disciplines must compete for funding from the superbody. “I personally don’t mind the competition, but the administrative process can get quite strange,” says a BRIN researcher who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing funding. “Say we propose to explore a mountain, we may get the funding for the lab, but not for the fieldwork, or vice versa. It should have come in one package.”

Three-way battle

Table of Contents

Among the candidates contesting the 2024 election are some familiar faces. With Widodo ineligible to run, because presidents in Indonesia can serve only two terms, former military general Prabowo Subianto is leading the polls. Defeated in the two previous elections — both times by Widodo — he has controversially recruited Widodo’s eldest son as his running mate.

Trailing him in the opinion polls is Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, who used to be a university rector. The third candidate is Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of Central Java and a career politician for the PDI-P. If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote on 14 February, a run-off will be held in June. The winner will take office in October.

All three candidates have promised to increase spending on research. In 2020, Indonesia’s research and development expenditure stood at just 0.28% of GDP, lagging behind neighbours such as Malaysia, with 0.95%, and Thailand, with 1.33%, according to World Bank data. According to campaign documents, Subianto aims to increase research funding to 1.5–2.0% of Indonesia’s GDP by 2029, Pranowo to 1% and Baswedan to 0.4–0.6%.

Subianto’s campaign spokesperson, Budiman Sudjatmiko, emphasizes the importance of investment in applied sciences for increased economic growth. “We are aiming for a research and innovation ecosystem that connects experts to markets, or from brain to brand,” he told Nature.

Pranowo has made similar promises, aiming to simplify regulations governing philanthropic donations for research and to provide tax incentives or subsidies for the private sector to support science.

But Herawati Sudoyo, a molecular biologist at the Mochtar Riady Institute for Nanotechnology at Pelita Harapan University in Tangerang, says that the presidential campaign has been notable for its lack of commitment to the development of basic sciences, with candidates emphasising industry-led sciences. “There should be a balance,” she says.

Baswedan, the only candidate with a PhD (in political science), has pledged to reduce researchers’ administrative burden by simplifying research permit applications and making multi-year research funding available.

Some Indonesian researchers have applauded the promises to increase research funding, but they remain sceptical on account of the perceived problems with BRIN.

New obstacles

The anonymous researcher says that BRIN has introduced a range of new obstacles to doing science in Indonesia. For example, he says, laboratories are now shared across research units, making them available to people outside BRIN, such as university students. He says that there have been cases in which researchers have had lab materials go missing, and colleagues have complained to him that experiments they were running were stopped by others.

Sudoyo, who was the deputy director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology before it was absorbed by BRIN, says the superbody is not the right model for Indonesian science. When the Eijkman Institute was integrated into BRIN, 115 of its staff lost their jobs, disrupting research projects. She says it is possible for a body to coordinate research without everything being merged into it.

Akhmad Farid Widodo, a senior engineer at BRIN, says it’s time the agency was re-examined. “The government should correct it as soon as possible so that BRIN can transform,” he says. BRIN’s decisions need to be based on a proposal’s technical merits, he adds, not on the “politics and subjectivity” that he thinks are affecting the agency at present.

BRIN chief Laksana Tri Handoko acknowledges that BRIN is asking researchers to change their way of working, but says that the agency is spurring better research outputs and collaborations.

“This year’s outputs have exceeded previous years’, whether in terms of publications in globally reputable journals, intellectual properties and industry licences,” Handoko told Nature.

Funding proposals are reviewed by external parties, some of them from abroad, to ensure that only the best research is supported, he says.

Source link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *