A car factory in Bekasi, West Java, on Feb. 27, 2015. (Antara PhotoZabur Karuru)

Commentary: Indonesia Needs to Boost Science Spending, Now

MARCH 01, 2015

Indonesian science rarely makes headlines — not nationally, let alone internationally. And despite plans being announced every now and then to do this or do that to make things better, very little is actually known about scientific progress in the country. A special publication last year by the UK's Royal Society provided a peek into the current Indonesian research landscape. If you decide to take a look for yourself: be prepared to be shocked.

The World Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation's country study highlights Indonesia in comparison with other Islamic Organization Countries, focusing on the allocation of funding, scientific publications, patent and copy rights, and other aspects of scientific achievement. To summarize: Indonesia falls short in almost all categories, including when compared to countries like Sudan and Bangladesh.

Quoting a 2011 study that mapped Asian science funding, the 2014 Atlas revealed the Indonesian research and development (R&D) expenditure amounted to $490 million, or 0.08 percent of GDP. However, a UNESCO count dated two years earlier stated than Indonesian research funding was in fact closer to 0.02 percent, putting it near the bottom of the IOC spending list. Indonesia's spending — in percentage of GDP — roughly equals that of Senegal, while it is outperformed by Sudan (0.4 percent) and Bangladesh (0.65 percent).

The impact of the minimal spending is direct and profound. It has basically crippled Indonesian scientific achievement. Even when looking only within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Indonesia does little to impress. The yearly number of Indonesian peer-reviewed publications is a mere 275 papers, far below Thailand (over 730), Malaysia (over 2,100) or Singapore (over 4,000). The research landscape in the archipelago is still dominated by the agricultural sector, even though Indonesia, with its staggering biodiversity, is very well-suited for fields like biomedicine and climate science.

One of the most painful parts of this predicament is probably how countries like Singapore trump Indonesia in fields the latter should in theory be much stronger in, such as environment and energy research. The Royal Society's study lamented: "That a country like Singapore, which has few natural resources of its own, should dominate in these areas is a damning indictment of how badly its competitors are doing."

So why is Indonesia in such dire straits scientifically?

It seems to be all about the money. While it can't buy happiness, money is unfortunately a deciding factor in developing science. The sad truth is that the repressive Suharto apparently had a better much better understanding of the importance of funding science than his democratic successors. Former minister of research and technology Gusti Muhammad Hatta last year claimed that under Suharto, science funding once stood at a towering 3.4 percent of GDP.

But in order for more money to be made available, what Indonesia needs first is a change in mindset. The country needs to understand that to move ahead, investing in innovation is its best bet.

The fact that President Joko Widodo has decided to keep the Research and Technology Ministry unchanged in his cabinet structure is no guarantee that science will be given the attention it badly needs. The funding remains abysmal regardless of the stated ambition to achieve certain milestones in years to come. The official 2025 vision for science, technology and innovation listed seven core fields, including food, energy and health and medicine, as focal points for research. But while ambition looks great on paper, funding and sound strategy trump jargon when we really want to achieve something.

South Korea has provided both money and serious planning since the late 1960s. With most of the peninsula's natural riches located in the North, South Korea became acutely aware that its future success would have to be based on technology and innovation. Its biggest asset at the time: semi-skilled labor and hard-working people. By the 1970s South Korea spent a decade manufacturing products for developed industrialized nations such as Japan, the United States and European countries. But it also heavily invested in copyrighted technology, while making sure its labor force acquired new skills through technology transfer.

South Korea in these years was spending an average of 3 percent of GDP annually on R&D. At the early stages of technology transfer, the R&D funds were used to prepare workers for the newly imported technology — a stage experts called "catching up." Next, investments were made to get local industries to conduct their own R&D to develop new technologies, because very soon the transferred technology was no longer sufficient to create the most sophisticated products.

One important lesson here is that funding is crucial. R&D is costly and it can take years before an innovation can be applied. In the Korean case, costs for research funding were shared by the government and the private sector, with universities and technical vocational schools spearheading the process. But even now, when there is no question about Korea's economic success, at 2.42 percent its science funding is still enormous — ahead of Israel, Japan and China, according to OECD data.

However, spending some 3 percent of GDP on science is clearly not a luxury every country can afford. Which is why the experience of Brazil is important to contemplate besides that of Korea. The South American giant has worked hard in the last decade to develop science at a more modest funding rate of between 1 percent and 1.6 percent of GDP. While Korea relies heavily on the manufacturing sector and biomedicine, Brazil has opted to focus on agriculture, alternatives to fossil fuels and sophisticated technology for the extraction of minerals.

Statistics show that this strategy is paying off. The number of peer-reviewed publications has soared from 19 in the 1970s to 200,000 papers in the past decades. Brazil's top scientists are collaborating with scientists all over the world on the latest research. Brazil is a global powerhouse on biofuel science, deep water drilling technology and crop research. Its latest ambition is to send hundreds of thousands of its brightest students abroad — a program that will cost Brazil $1.9 billion.

For Indonesia, raising the bar for public science spending is essential for future development. To follow the example of South Korea and Brazil, however, would require Indonesia to dramatically prioritize its science-related policies, preferably by setting up a science fund and offering incentives for industry-sponsored research. While the funding problem will take some time to resolve, Indonesia should also refocus on defining fields for research. With it massive biodiversity and wealth of natural resources, Indonesia has the potential to become a world leader in the study of natural energy, marine conservation or climate change impact. But without serious attention — and funding — Indonesia runs the risk of forever lagging behind in scientific discovery and technological advancement.

Dewi Safitri is pursuing a master's degree in science, technology and society at University College London.