Growing opposition to new overarching research and innovation body

Opposition is growing against Indonesia’s new overarching research and innovation body as academics and the public question its ‘politicised’ steering board and the dismantling of many of the country’s specialised research agencies.

The new research agency is in charge of issuing permits for foreign researchers wanting to work in Indonesia, which has been a contentious issue in the country.

Indonesia’s President Jokowi Widodo, popularly called Jokowi, announced the new body called BRIN – the Indonesian acronym for National Research and Innovation Agency – on 28 April 2021.

Opposition has subsequently grown, with a group of professors issuing a document in June criticising BRIN’s lack of autonomy.

Officials say BRIN, which will coordinate all research conducted by government bodies and universities, is intended to make national research more efficient and better able to serve Indonesia’s economic development policies.

It eliminates four existing government research and innovation agencies, which has sparked a strong reaction. The research organisations replaced are the Indonesian Institute of Sciences or LIPI, the National Nuclear Energy Agency, the Indonesian Institute of National Aeronautics and Space, and the Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology.

In a later statement, the head of BRIN, Laksana Tri Handoko, a physicist who was head of LIPI, said the number of research organisations to be dissolved under BRIN was as many as 80.

BRIN is also seen as controversial due to the appointment as head of its steering board of former Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, chair of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle or PDI-P, Widodo’s political party.

She is also head of the Pancasila Ideology Indoctrination body, a nationalist organisation, and has warned publicly against foreign interference in research.

During a ceremony granting her an honorary professorship at the Indonesian Defence University in June, Megawati asserted that research and technology should be based on the state ideology of Pancasila to make Indonesia “independent in science and technology”.

Fear of politicisation of research

The Indonesian government has, in the past, restricted local and international research collaboration into deforestation and forest fires, as well as research on the country’s threatened orang-utan (great apes) population.

This has raised concerns that research funding could be used for narrow party political goals, undermining academic freedom, independent research and international collaborative research.

“Research and innovation cannot in any way be subdued to any ideology,” said Asep Saeful Muhtadi, professor of communication at the State Islamic University of Bandung.

“And the appointment of power-thirsty Megawati is nothing but the political desire of this government to be in full control of the science and academic realm,” he told University World News, adding: “This is clearly a bad sign for science, research and education.”

Muhtadi teamed up with 17 leading professors from Indonesian universities in a joint call to remove the steering board from BRIN, one of the recommendations in a document critical of BRIN that was written by the professors and submitted to BRIN in June.

“Our main concern is not for BRIN itself, but for the upcoming conditions when bad politicians can control research and academic matters,” Muhtadi said.

“Learning from the last presidential election, all government institutions, including research organisations, were dragged into defending the ruling power. BRIN should never be subject to any power mongering,” the document stated.

The professors’ Indonesian-language document also recommends that the four research institutions that face the axe are maintained, with BRIN functioning only as coordinating body and intermediary among existing research institutions.

BRIN also effectively brings the long-established research and technology ministry – called Kemenristek – to an end, with the ministry’s work and functions, including employees and executive staff members, integrated into the ministry of education and culture, now the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture, Research and Technology.

No need for ideological structure

The establishment of what is called Dewan Pengarah – literally, ‘steering board’ – has been widely questioned. BRIN executives are to work under and in line with Dewan Pengarah guidelines and policies.

“Research and science organisations do not need such driving and guiding boards. Researchers and academics work with [their own] reasoning and common sense, which are their driving forces,” said Siti Zuhro, senior political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and a member of the group of professors who drew up the June document.

Zuhro added that BRIN’s structure would mean “the fate of our research will be swayed by short-term interests of political forces”.

Some argue that the steering board is legally problematic, “because the Presidential Decree No 11 Year 2019 does not mention such a body,” Zuhro told University World News. The presidential decree originally outlined the plan for BRIN, although it was not formally set up until this year.

Researchers and academics must closely monitor “every step of BRIN”, possibly through the creation of a task force of academics to oversee the new research body.

Zuhro said BRIN needs to come up with a solution to Indonesia’s lagging research, which is mostly due to a lack of government support. “Our national budget allocation for research is less than 1%. There is not much we can do in research with such a low budget allocation.”

“So, the academic community’s concern that BRIN would serve as a political instrument for the PDI-P to maintain its grip on power is justified,” he said referring to the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Sofian Effendi, a professor at Gadjah Mada University and an expert on state management, maintained that such steering boards do not exist in democratic developed countries. “But authoritarian-communist countries have it,” he said, referring to China.

According to Effendi, the Chinese Communist Party “watches over researchers and gives them ‘guidance’ ”, so that the ruling party has a strong influence on research.

Not all academics agree.

Alan F Koropitan, one of Jokowi’s science advisers, said: “Tell me, which developed country is there where politics does not drive science?”

He pointed to former United States president John F Kennedy’s decision in the 1960s to land on the moon.

“It’s a political decision. He [Kennedy] did not talk about who would go to the moon, but aerospace research, and space science development, intensified ever since. For example, research into what materials could survive in outer space,” Koropitan said.

“In China, research and science developed faster after Deng Xiaoping made the ‘Open Door’ policy, which is a political decision,” Koropitan added, referring to the Chinese leader’s opening up of the economy in the 1980s.

However, Koropitan, Muhtadi and Zuhro agree that BRIN should function as an agency for national research. “The main idea is that research organisations, universities and industries should work on a common platform and goals so each can benefit the other,” Koropitan said.

So far, these three pillars appeared to have worked on their own, “so national research and innovation is stagnating”.

BRIN’s head, Handoko, said on 9 August that BRIN would partner with universities in Indonesia to enable them to become world class, as world-class institutions need good research capabilities.

BRIN will accelerate development of the research and innovation ecosystem in Indonesia, including increasing international cooperation in biodiversity, maritime exploration with research vessels and space observation, Handoko said in a statement on 3 August, reaffirming Indonesia’s exchange programmes with Japan for young researchers.