Academics and researchers fear politicisation of research

Indonesian academics say their fears that politics could interfere in research under Indonesia’s overarching research and innovation body, BRIN, appear to have been realised after Eko Noer Kristiyanto, a researcher who filed a lawsuit for a judicial review on the new research institution in the Constitutional Court, pulled out of the court action.

Meanwhile, last week President Joko Widodo inaugurated the new BRIN steering committee with senior politician Megawati Sukarnoputri at its head.

Eko Noer Kristiyanto, who also works for the Law and Human Rights Ministry, and Heru Susetyo, a member of the Jakarta Research Council and researcher and assistant professor at the University of Indonesia Law School, were jointly seeking a judicial review by the Constitutional Court of Law No 11 of 2019 on the national system of science and technology, which was the basis for setting up BRIN to integrate research bodies.

They particularly contested the interpretation of the word ‘integrated’ which they say has been mistakenly interpreted by the government to enable it to dissolve the country’s four main research funding bodies and amalgamate them into a single body BRIN – the Indonesian acronym for National Research and Innovation Agency.

BRIN was created in April under the 2019 law, replacing the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), the National Nuclear Energy Agency, the Indonesian Institute of National Aeronautics and Space, and the Agency for Assessment and Application of Technology.

“I’m not aware of the dynamics going on in his ministry (the Ministry of Law and Human Rights) but Eko knows he’s under pressure,” said Mulyanto (one name), a legislator from the Justice and Welfare Party, after Kristiyanto’s decision to pull out was revealed in a court hearing last month.

“This is clearly a setback for Indonesia’s law and democracy,” Mulyanto told media in Jakarta on 24 September.

But despite widespread opposition to BRIN within the academic community, President Joko Widodo inaugurated the new BRIN steering committee on 13 October, with senior politician Megawati Sukarnoputri at its head. Megawati is also head of the Pancasila Ideology Development Agency (BPIP) and chairperson of the ruling party, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

Her appointment at the helm has led academics and researchers to fear politicisation of research.

The deputy chairpersons are the current Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and National Development Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa, who is also a businessman and politician.

Azyumardi Azra, rector of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, described the newly set up steering committee as a “disaster” for Indonesian research and science.

“A research organisation should be led by a scientist. And not just a scientist, it should be a credible and reputed scientist,” Azra told University World News.

First hearing in Constitutional Court

The original lawsuit maintained that the government’s version of ‘integration’ of research bodies results in confusion and frustration for many researchers working for these organisations, and argues the word ‘integrated’ should not be separated from the real meaning of the word within the law, which interprets it as ‘coordination’, ‘development’, and ‘joint-planning’.

However, a Constitutional Court hearing on 21 September, led by Judge Enny Nurbaningsih and judging panel members Saldi Isra and Daniel Yusmic Pancastaki Foekh, started with Kristiyanto’s lawyer Wasis Susetio reading out his client’s written statement withdrawing from the case.

“I am no longer a researcher at the Law and Human Rights Ministry, so now I am not in a position to file suit on this case. I have no legal standing in this court,” Kristiyanto said in his written statement.

Heru Susetyo, Kristiyanto’s co-plaintiff is going ahead with the suit. “Under a centralistic institution like BRIN, science and technology is at stake. This new research organisation will mean red tape and petty bureaucracy that will slow down research and innovation,” Susetyo said in a written statement read out by his lawyer during the 21 September court hearing.

Susetyo argued that allowing this integration could potentially jeopardise his work as an independent researcher and he expressed the concern that BRIN could determine which research was important to the country.

He predicted BRIN’s top-down hierarchy will lead to instructions from the top, rather than increasing motivation and innovation from the bottom up.

BRIN will have regional branches, but research proposals and initiatives will become more centralised, he noted.

Legislator Mulyanto recently described BRIN as a centralised institution with mixed functions ranging from formulation and determination of policies, coordination of policy implementation and monitoring and evaluation of policies at both central and regional levels, which had previously been functions of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.

In addition, he said BRIN carries out research, development, assessment and application from invention to innovation for all fields of science from technology to social science and political science, which were previously under non-ministerial government agencies and semi-autonomous research and development agencies.

Mulyanto described the consolidation of science and technology institutions under BRIN as a ‘formidable challenge’. “If we don’t succeed, it is certain that Indonesia’s innovation performance will continue to decline,” he told a parliamentary committee on 12 October.

Focus on steering committee

The formation of the BRIN steering committee this month, including Megawati’s subordinates, has attracted attention as some of its members lack scientific and research expertise.

Its secretary is Sudhamek Agoeng Waspodo Soenjoto, one of Indonesia’s richest men. While being a Megawati subordinate in BPIP, he is the chairman of a giant food company in Indonesia, PT Garudafood.

Another member is Bambang Kesowo, a former minister of state secretary and head of the State Secretariat. As a PDI-P politician, Kesowo is considered close to Megawati, but he also has considerable knowledge of intellectual property rights, having represented Indonesia in negotiations at the United Nations and the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva.

Other committee members are:

• Emil Salim, a professor of economics who is well known as an environmentalist;

• I Gede Wenten, a professor of chemical technology at Bandung Institute of Technology, who holds 15 patents on membrane technology;

• Adi Utarini, professor of public health who works on disease control of dengue fever at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta;

• Marsudi Wahyu Kisworo, who is an official at the state-owned PT Telkom Indonesia, and also a professor of information technology and head of the Indonesian Vocational Education Association; and

• Tri Mumpuni, a social entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist who has developed and promoted micro-hydroelectric power plants in Indonesian villages.

Commenting on the BRIN lineup, Azra said: “Megawati knows nothing about science and research. But the worst thing is that President Jokowi thinks research and science should be put under their [non-scientists’] control.”

He claimed Megawati has not done much while in BPIP “which is her domain, so how can we trust her to do good in a field that is not her domain?”.

Azra pointed out many steering committee members “are politicians and officials, who have no record in research and innovation. Only three are scientists including Emil Salim, an eminent scientist but who is already aged 91”.

He fears Jokowi and Megawati will use BRIN to promote their ideological and political agenda just as they do within BPIP.

Azra said he has no reason to be optimistic about BRIN, but assumes the new research institution will be insignificant in boosting research and science. “President Jokowi has only two years left. It’s not enough for BRIN to organise itself, while the research organisations that have made significant discoveries and innovations have ceased to exist.”

More ‘independence’ for researchers

Not all researchers are as sceptical. Fathi Royyani, a biological researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) now amalgamated into BRIN, said BRIN could create a better atmosphere for research and innovation in Indonesia.

“I know some people are unhappy with BRIN. But I choose to see the positive side: BRIN might make Indonesian researchers, academics, professors more independent,” Royyani told University World News.

They will be able to find funding for their research proposals elsewhere, including international research organisations and foreign corporations, without having to rely solely on government research agencies and universities, he said.

“My fellow researcher in genetics is still writing his research proposal. But a number of companies are waiting for his proposal and are ready to finance his research because of his reputation and cutting-edge innovations. So he will bring in his own funding for his research and his laboratory,” Royyani said.

“I’m sorry to say most of our researchers and professors are spoiled. They earn high salaries, performance-related fees, and other allowances, without doing any research. There are hundreds of thousands of them, and the government has had to support them.”

He said a professor and researcher can earn IDR60 million (US$4,240) a month without doing any research. “The ones who worry about BRIN are those who are enjoying such indulgence,” Royyani added.