Commentary: Indonesia Needs to Start Taking Science Seriously

(JG Graphics/Josep Tri Ronggo)

By : Erik Meijaard | on 1:28 PM April 01, 2015
Category : Opinion, Commentary, Featured

On a recent flight to Europe I was chatting to a young Indonesian physicist working in a German research institution. He is among the many smart, scientifically and technically savvy Indonesians I have encountered or worked with over the past decades, many of whom, however, are working and building careers overseas.

Some of these scientists are amazing. You give them a problem, they go quiet for a few months, and get back to you with an entirely new way of analyzing the problem, some stunning results, and a bit of new software they have written to facilitate analysis.

The well-trained Indonesian scientists obviously exist. But why is it then, that on an international science stage, Indonesia still performs so poorly?

In the most recent (2012) rating by the Program for International Student Assessment, Indonesia ranked 64th out of 65 in both maths and sciences. In terms of scientific productivity (total number of scientific papers published), Indonesia ranked 61st in the world, just above Bangladesh, and behind Belarus and Cuba, which have much smaller populations. This begs the question why a country like Indonesia lags far behind other countries in similar stages of development, like China, Brazil, or India.

One of my Indonesian PhD students in an Australian university suggested that Indonesia’s lack of appreciation for science is one explanation. Well-educated academics like him return to Indonesia, often to a job in the private sector or government. Unfortunately, there appears to be limited support for continuing scientific research in such institutions.

Often, excellent academics are sucked back into the bureaucracies of Indonesian government or non-government institutes. Of course, these people retain their analytical skills, but it is hard to keep scientifically active when institutions do not provide much incentive for continuing high-impact research, or reward such scientific endeavors with salary bonuses or improved career opportunities.

This even shows in Indonesian universities and research institutions. There are heaps of overseas-educated academics who have not published internationally for years and are largely unknown in the international research community.

My own field of conservation science is a good example. Out of 885 scientific publications published in the past 10 years about Indonesian conservation, 113 (12.7 percent) had an Indonesian as first author, with the remaining 86.8 percent led by non-Indonesian authors. And of those 113 Indonesian-led publications, 79 (68.1 percent) had been written by Indonesians not actually based in Indonesia but in overseas research institutions.

This has some unexpected consequences. I showed in a recent publication in the journal Conservation Biology that research science in Indonesia (and in fact much of the rest of Southeast Asia) is so poorly developed that for scientists it becomes a real disincentive to work here. If you do research in this region, your work is about five times less likely to be cited than if you were based in the Americas or Europe.

Being cited frequently is crucial for developing a scientific career, obtaining research grants, and getting international recognition (i.e., compete effectively). Becoming a scientist with a research agenda in Indonesia does seem to be a pretty poor career choice.

This is a bad situation that urgently needs to be addressed. If one of the goals of research is to influence politics and practices, this would be so much more effective if the advice and recommendations came from Indonesians rather than foreigners.

To me, it is obvious that Indonesian policy and political decision-making desperately need better science. Pretty much every day I read about dubious policy decisions that are based on poor or incomplete information or analysis. A recent example is the link between drugs use statistics in Indonesia and the execution of smugglers, as extensively discussed on these pages.

Over the years, I have highlighted many other examples in the forestry and natural resource sectors.

I wonder whether the apparent lack of interest in Indonesia for developing a strong science community reflects a broader lack of societal interest in science in Indonesia. It may be a bit like training large numbers of classical musicians in a society that is tone-deaf or has zero appreciation of Chopin, Wagner or Bach.

This would then be a chicken and egg problem. Society, and the politicians apparently representing it, are not interested in science. Scientists are thus not rewarded (status, money, recognition). They therefore don’t make an effort to improve or they leave Indonesia. And thus the status of Indonesian science remains low.

All this requires a substantial effort to change. If Indonesia wants to remain competitive in a rapidly globalizing economy they need to produce many more highly skilled workers, including scientists that can effectively compete with foreigners. It is good to see that the Indonesian government recognizes the problem and is trying to invest in better science and education. But more is needed.

Science should play a central role in the Indonesian school curricula. There should be good science programs on television, and newspapers should have science sections that people actually read. Kids need to understand and appreciate that science is all about the joy of questioning and finding out — the teacher may not always be right, and if wrong it is the student’s right or even duty to question the teacher.

Furthermore, governments should have programs that subsidize the education and career of its best brains, and these people should be able to develop well-paid careers in Indonesia along merit-based institutional career paths. This requires money that ultimately comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, which in turn means that society needs to understand that a strong science base benefits the country and its people.

I have been able to work as a scientist in Indonesia for nearly 25 years precisely because there has been minimal competition from Indonesian scientists. This has been great for my career and I am most grateful to Indonesia for that. But it is not right and the situation of foreigners dominating Indonesian science needs to change.

I sincerely hope that, in the future, Indonesia won’t need foreigners like myself anymore for producing the high-quality science required to steer this country onto a path of growing welfare for all its citizens.

The easy option is to kindly ask us foreigners to all leave the country. The better option is to strengthen local science, ultimately making those foreigners redundant.

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative.

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