INDONESIA: Natural sciences lag behind

Indonesia's new academic year, just beginning, has again exposed the inadequacy of the country's higher education provision in the natural sciences. Few universities are offering such undergraduate courses, and the paucity of undergraduates in the natural sciences is reflected further up the higher education ladder in a lack of research students.

Each year public spaces such as railway and bus terminals are draped in university programme advertisements, as are the print and electronic media. A survey of these over several weeks found a dearth of references to the natural sciences.

The Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) has for years tried to remedy this situation, pointing out that, among other things, there is a great deal of potentially valuable work to be done on the country's immense terrestrial and marine biodiversity.

Earlier this year LIPI singled out marine taxonomy as a crucial area. At present Indonesia has only 20 researchers working in this field.

LIPI held a programme in April in Jakarta to promote the subject and stated its aim to create up to 100 Indonesian specialists over the next 10 years. Two students are to be selected to undergo further training at the National University of Singapore.

Given the vastness of Indonesia's maritime zone, the scope for biodiversity research is huge.

Another critical area is plant biodiversity, under increasing pressure from the destruction of Indonesia's rainforests.

LIPI plays a crucial role in a newly expanded national Botanical Gardens programme, now covering 16 sites across the country from Sumatra through Borneo, Java and Bali to Sulawesi. But it is facing a major obstacle in the form of parental expectations.

The general public seems to believe there are few job opportunities for natural science graduates and many parents steer their offspring away from these courses.

Too little time and effort is devoted to the natural sciences in Indonesian schools. Many have neither the facilities nor adequately qualified science teachers.

Some Indonesian educational reform campaigners such as Professor Mochtar Buchori, once head of the Teacher Training Institute, have called for a complete overhaul of teacher training and the curriculum to help rectify this.

Buchori told University World News that current widely used teaching methods deny Indonesian students "the necessary intellectual equipment" vital for the development of science in schools and universities.

The concern shown by LIPI and others such as the Bogor Institute of Agriculture is real enough.

As far back as 1996, when Periplus published its excellent Ecology of Java and Bali, two Indonesian LIPI researchers who co-authored the work wrote that not enough time or money was being spent on the laborious and time-consuming tasks of collection, identification and analysis of ecological field data, or on training skilled practitioners.

The Ministry of National Education has tripled the state university research budget for the current academic year in a drive to widen the field. Whether this will bring in more undergraduate natural science students remains a moot point.

Meanwhile, a number of universities fight against the odds to strengthen the natural sciences in the country. Notable among them are the University of Indonesia with its Biodiversity Centre, Hasanuddin University in Makassar from which village-centred coastal conservation and regeneration programmes have been run, and Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, with interests in agro-forestry.