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Researchers grapple with 40% cut in science funding

Amid cuts to Indonesia’s research budget for universities because of an economic slowdown, researchers in poorer parts of Indonesia are grappling with the challenge of producing meaningful research with little money, including forming university consortia to pool resources.

Despite a pledge by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, during his presidential campaign in 2014 to double the country’s research fund, the government has cut the 2017 research budget for state universities from IDR250 billion (US$18.7 million) to IDR150 billion (US$11.2 million) – slashing it by 40% from January this year.

“For the first time, the research budget is cut. It never happened before,” said Ocky Karna Radjasa, director of research and community service at the Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry.

Indonesia’s overall research and development spending is around IDR10 trillion (US$748 million) a year – 0.09% of its gross domestic product or GDP, according to World Bank data – one of the lowest in the world.

The budget cut is an even heavier blow for universities in the poorer eastern part of Indonesia, already desperately struggling to compete with institutions in Java for a declining funding pot.

“So far we rely on the state budgets of national and regional administrations, which do not meet our research needs, even after the so-called Otsus fund [for Papua] is added to it,” Professor Budi Santoso, a senior lecturer in animal husbandry at Papua University, Manokwari, told University World News. He was referring to funds under a special autonomy law for Papua, known as Otsus, which transfers more autonomy and funding to the Papuan people.

Until this month, the government spent IDR1.395 trillion (US$104 million) on its national research programme which includes the universities and other research institutions, but Budi said it doesn’t necessarily mean more for his university. “The research fund available is open to everybody. It is based on competition. Of course, researchers in good universities in Java are in a better position to [access] it, because they are academically stronger and have more advantages.”

He believes the government should ringfence a certain amount for the eastern universities, and they can compete with each other to use the money. “That would be a fair competition among equals.”

Budi’s research proposal on animal feed was approved although he would not disclose the amount received. However, Amran Ola Laot, a young lecturer at the University of Nusa Cendana in Kupang, received just some IDR20 million [US$1,500] for his research into water in his hometown. “With this amount my research cannot go anywhere. It turns out to be a waste of money,” he told University World News.

Getting past research assessors

The situation is better for lecturers and researchers in Java. Dr Ir Ririen Prihandarini, a senior lecturer at the Widyagama University of Malang in East Java, received around IDR1 billion for her four-year research on microbe-based fertiliser which resulted in the development of an eco-friendly fertiliser now used by corporations and the community.

She puts her success in receiving sufficient funding down to keeping abreast of changing priorities of officials in charge of approving proposals. “In the past, we had research proposal assessors who preferred [to see] real and direct benefit and utility for the community. So research proposals with direct utility angles were more likely to get the go-ahead,” she said.

“But now we have assessors who are happy to see research published in international journals, despite lack of real benefit in the field, so those who are good in writing have an advantage,” she said, adding that her fertiliser is sold as far afield as China, though her research was never published in an international journal.

President Jokowi wants more research that has an impact and applied research. “Research is not for the researchers’ own benefit, nor for the university, but for all of us, for the whole community,” Jokowi told the National Conference of Indonesian Rectors Forum on 2 February in Jakarta, and called for more research in marine, food and renewable energy.

Eastern consortium

In anticipation of more limited funding, the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology or ITS in Surabaya, East Java will lead a consortium of more than 40 state and private universities known as the Eastern Part of Indonesia-University Network or EPI-UNET.

Ir Joni Hermana, ITS rector, said the network would be able to deal with limited funding and resources, including a lack of human resources, “by joining together on the same or related topics of research so inefficiencies in funding similar research can be avoided.”

Each member institution of the consortium looked at its areas appropriate for joint research, amid intensive communication among the network members. Joni said as a result of this initial phase, the network has developed collaborative research, including joint publishing in science journals, in energy, marine studies, environment, disaster, and sea and land transportation.

Ketut Buda Artana, ITS vice-chancellor, said the network has published 22 research papers by member universities in the EPI-UNET journal. “Some of this research will be further developed as new research topics for next year,” he said.

Under the EPI-UNET’s research collaboration umbrella, Tanjungpura University in West Kalimantan and ITS are researching new and renewable energy in West Kalimantan. “We have a lot of wind in our area but are poor in electricity. Now we are in the final stages of setting up wind-generated power plants thanks to this research collaboration,” said Professor Muhammad Ismail Yusuf, head of the Research and Community Service Center of Tanjungpura University.

The network brings confidence and optimism to rectors of its member universities. “Now I see an opportunity to grow as strong as universities in Java,” said Philippus Betaubun, rector of Musamus Merauke University in Merauke, Papua.

Abdul Jabarsyah, rector of Kalimantan Utara University, said that his university was newly established, but after it joined the network he was confident it could catch up with older universities in academic achievement.
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