Science

‘Superagency’ may further politicize Indonesian research

A forest gives way to a plantation on Sumatra. Deforestation and other major challenges mean that Indonesia needs science more than ever, researchers say.

BEAWIHARTA BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

Indonesia has dismantled its science ministry and created an overarching national research agency, a move some scientists worry will strengthen political control over research in a country where academic freedom is already under pressure and politics have taken an authoritarian turn.

The Indonesian Parliament on 9 April approved a proposal by President Joko Widodo to eliminate the Ministry of Research and Technology (RISTEK) and create a new National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). Details have yet to be fleshed out, but BRIN seems set to have broad powers to fund, execute, and control research in the country. It will be led by physicist Laksana Tri Handoko, who currently heads the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

Widodo has often criticized the Indonesian scientific community for what he says is lackluster performance. The country’s $1.7 billion annual research budget—a fraction of what the United States and many European countries spend—is enough, he told Indonesian academics in 2019. “Where’s the output?” he asked. Widodo has also been critical of the large number of research agencies scattered around the national bureaucracy and provincial governments across the archipelago.

BRIN, which Widodo has called “the big house” for Indonesian research, was formally created in a new science law adopted in 2019, but debates about its role and place in the Indonesian government delayed it. Some initial plans called for it be part of RISTEK, but Widodo decided BRIN will replace it and several other scientific bodies, including LIPI and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology. (“Personally, I’m sad because I am the last research minister in the country,” RISTEK Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro said at an 11 April seminar.) Besides planning and funding research, the new “superagency” will also issue permits for foreign researchers to work in Indonesia—an increasingly contentious topic.

BRIN was conceived within Widodo’s political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDID), whose leader, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, has warned against foreign interference in research. “Don’t let our republic rush into collaborating with our close friends from abroad,” she told The Jakarta Post in January 2020. “Just make use of … our own people first.” Some see Sukarnoputri’s ambitions as an extension of the policies of her father, Sukarno, who as Indonesia’s first president in the 1950s and ’60s promoted science and technology as a way for the newly independent nation to develop.

Indonesian politicians, from PDID and other parties, “want our science and technology to be in line with their nationalistic ideology,” says Berry Juliandi, a spokesperson of the Indonesian Young Scientists Forum. Although he says there is nothing wrong with striving for national greatness, “We have to make sure that there will be no politicization.”

Yet political influence on research is growing, says Inaya Rakhmani, a media sociologist at the University of Indonesia. The government has clamped down on unwelcome research into deforestation, forest fires, and threats to a rare orangutan population, for example. Historians are not allowed to study anticommunist massacres in 1965 and 1966 during which up to 1 million Indonesians perished, and human rights scholars are banned from advocating for independence for West Papua.

Yanuar Nugroho, an adviser for the Center for Innovation Policy and Governance, says the reforms in Indonesian research policy come at a time when the country needs solid science more than ever. A plan to create massive new crop plantations on peatlands and in protected forests on Borneo will further increase the risk of devastating wildfires and floods, scientists say. The government is also supporting an unorthodox vaccination method for COVID-19 that involves taking dendritic cells from a person’s body, immersing them in viral antigens, then reinjecting them. The Indonesian Food and Drug Authority, worried about side effects and unsterile production procedures, has banned a phase 2 clinical trial of the method, developed by former Minister of Health Terawan Putranto, who also invented an unproven and potentially harmful stroke therapy.

Nugroho hopes BRIN’s power can still be limited by making it responsible only for coordinating and carrying out research, while making another agency responsible for policy. Juliandi would like to see funding put into the hands of an independent organization as well. “When you centralize everything in one governing body, there is always a chance for abuse of power,” he says.

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