Indonesian policy makers rely on research produced outside of the country to inform themselves on key policy decisions shaping Indonesia’s future.Research, essential to any development endeavor, is the building block of a knowledgeable economy and yet, it is still poorly funded in Indonesia. (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

Commentary: Searching for Indonesia’s Amartya Sen


JULY 31, 2015

Indonesia’s ability to compete at a global level when it comes to research and development depends on the quality of the next generation researchers graduating from Indonesian universities and the support they receive upon graduation from the Indonesian government and in their respective careers.

The Indonesian government is taking great strides to embrace more evidence-based policy making geared towards research and development. However, despite taking efforts to implement such policies, they will garner little roots unless three key mechanisms are put in place: first, universities will have to commit to higher standards of education and equip students with the research skills required to provide public institutions with high quality research; second, there must be an increase in expenditure geared towards research and development; lastly, Indonesia must commit to attracting and retaining a greater number of policy researchers so that Indonesia, too, will one day produce it's own Amartya Sen − an Indian economist and philosopher who was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1998.

If children and young adults in Indonesia were to be asked what would they like to be when they grow up, often the answers of being a doctor and businessman arise. However, it is rare to hear those wishing to pursue a career as a researcher or premiere scientist.

There is a stigma in Indonesia around science and technology. For whatever reason it may be, research and researchers are considered far from sexy. Perhaps it’s the lack or recognition or pay?

Indonesia is poised to become one of the world’s top ten economies by 2025, yet the government, which sets aside about 20 percent of the state budget for education, only earmarks 0.08 percent of a Rp 257 trillion ($19 billion) budget toward research. This equates to roughly $16 million for all university, ministerial, and national development research. Comparing these figures to world economic leaders like China and South Korea, Indonesia is far behind.

A comparative study by Greta Nielsen in 2010 revealed that the gross expenditure for research and development as a percentage of the GDP in Singapore was at 2.61 percent and in Malaysia it was 0.64 percent. The average of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in 2010 was 2.38 percent. The global research and development funding forecast for Indonesia allocated towards research and development spending was at 0.2 percent of GDP for 2014.

As a result, Indonesian policy makers rely on research produced outside of the country to inform themselves on key policy decisions shaping Indonesia’s future. There are a number of world-class research organizations operating right here in Indonesia, stocked with some of the brightest minds in policy and research design.

There is little reason that the only statistics quoted by policy-makers should solely be derived from McKinsey or the World Bank. The key actions that need to be taken and the inherent risks that come with ignoring the knowledge sector could prove detrimental to Indonesia’s future and aspirations.

Indonesia’s social and economic progress hinges on the bold, forward-thinking generation of business leaders and philanthropists committed to funding high-quality research, urging the government to adopt intelligent policies and utilize strategic philanthropy as a compass to address the needs of Indonesia’s burgeoning knowledge sector. A thriving knowledgeable economy depends on strategic linkages created by a flourishing ecosystem, constructed of government actors, philanthropists, policy research institutes, the private sector corporations all geared towards supporting development funding.

Research, essential to any development endeavor, is the building block of a knowledgeable economy and yet, it is still poorly funded in Indonesia. The private sector has the potential to play an important role and lead the way in establishment of an effective locally based research system.

But there are positive steps being taken. Recently, the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) launched the Indonesian Science Fund which is a never before seen pool of research funds aimed at increasing the pool of trained research scientists and engineers, and fostering entrepreneurship and innovation. With support from philanthropists, the private sector, as well as techncial assistance by programs such as the Knowledge Sector Initiative, the Indonesian Science Fund could grow to support critical research in fields such as social science, bio-engineering and computer science.

It all boils down to perception. Real demand from the public and of university students lobbying for high-quality research coming from their professors will help to improve the amount and quality of policy research that is used in the policy making process. It will take some time, but we will hopefully see an Amartya Sen in batik in the future.

Arnaldo Pellini is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute and a senior adviser working at the Knowledge Sector Initiative. Zack Petersen is the strategic outreach specialist at the Knowledge Sector Initiative.