Breaking with the past, no more negligence in research

an article from  The Jakarta Post by Henri A. Verbrugh

Probably unnoticed by most Indonesians, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo signed Presidential Decree No. 38/2018 on the national research master plan months ago. Actually, the decree of April 17 constitutes a historic break with the past in which Indonesia’s performance in science and innovation has been dismal.

The scientific output and the number of innovations coming from Indonesia have been lagging far behind considering the size of its population and the level of its socioeconomic development. Indonesia is not a poor country, but its scientific output is not only very low in quantity but also of poor quality on average.

Of course there are plenty of potentially excellent scientists and innovators out there among the 263 million inhabitants. So rather than a lack of talent, it has been a matter of neglect of science and innovation as an important societal endeavor.

This neglect of science and innovation is best expressed as the amount of money spent on research and development. Whereas average countries spend approximately 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research, up to 2010, Indonesia spent only 0.05 percent of its GDP, or less than Rp 25,000 (US$1.74) per inhabitant per year.

Except for Brunei, all members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have done much more, spending on average almost 10 times more on research than Indonesia. Compared to advanced countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the difference is even greater, where on average these countries spend 2 percent of their GDP — 40 times more than Indonesia!

It is no wonder that Indonesia’s development has not been driven by a knowledge-based economy; rather, it is commodities-driven. Indonesia imports knowledge and knowledge-intensive goods and services and heavily depends on other nations to provide innovation.

Jokowi’s aforementioned decree promises to change this situation drastically. Spending on research will be boosted quickly. It should increase more than fourfold and reach 0.84 percent by 2020 — that is only a little over one year from now.

These new funds will be distributed across at least nine major fields of science and innovation identified in the national research master plan called RIRN 2017-2045, produced by the Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry.

This is very good, since it focuses on topics most relevant for Indonesia’s development, and allows for long-term commitments to in-depth research on these topics.

Of course, there is some way to go before Indonesia will have attained a knowledge-based economy and produces its own high-tech products and services.

We need to identify talent and provide talented persons with the means and facilities to develop into proper scientists that can make lifelong careers in science. The number of fulltime researchers in Indonesia has to grow from a meagre 200 per 1 million inhabitants to now over 2,000 per million in the coming decades; that is a challenge!

Mind you, Finland now already has over 7,000 researchers per million inhabitants. Indonesia needs to organize multidisciplinary research institutes and expand or upgrade existing research facilities and structurally support them specifically to do research.

We need to improve governance and reduce bureaucracy in managing our research institutes such that they can become agile centers of excellence.

The existing universities have to realize what they want to be, remain an institute primarily for higher education or change and become a true research university as well; in research universities, trained researchers are expected to primarily do research, have research careers and get paid well for doing so.

Thus, there is much work ahead, but there is now a clear perspective on the Republic of Indonesia joining the world of research and innovation, at last.


The writer is vice director of medical science, Indonesian Medical Education and Research Institute (IMERI), School of Medicine, University of Indonesia (UI) Jakarta. He is also professor emeritus of Erasmus University and adjunct professor at UI.