Saturday, June 18, 2016

Indonesia's excellent move to support basic research

by Salman Hameed

A few years ago, Indonesians elected the popular mayor of Jakarta, Joko Widido, as the President of
the country. It was the first time that the President did not come from the military nor was part of the traditional political elite. I remember watching the coverage of some amazing celebrations in the streets of Jakarta after his elections. Oh - and he loves Led Zeppelin and Metallica! How can you go wring with that.

Well, now he established Indonesian Science Foundation (ISF) - and it is an excellent step. From SciDev:
The Indonesian Science Fund (ISF), established under a recent decree of President Joko Widodo, will earmark around US$60 million a year to fund 200 research proposals. The ISF will grant US$100,000 for each successful research proposal, similar to the practice of the US National Science Foundation which allots around US$200,000 per research grant. This year, an initial US$10 million was allocated, the ISF announced Wednesday.  
“The main aim of the ISF is to create the right scientific culture in Indonesia. It means that we’ll focus on frontier research rather than on applied ones,” Sangkot Marzuki, president of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI), tells SciDev.Net.  
The ISF is expected to bridge the gap for financing scientific research in Indonesia. The national budget for science and technology is only 0.08 per cent, compared to the science budgets of Asian economic giant and research powerhouse South Korea (3.7 per cent) and Indonesian neighbours Singapore (2 per cent) and Malaysia (1.13 per cent). 
Indonesia’s limited national budget flows through tangled branches of government agencies prone to corruption practices, resulting in the poor performance of science and technology in the country. 
Interestingly, this is part of US science diplomacy with Indonesia. Usually, these governmental things fizzle out - but this seems like a great step, and I'm glad that it has been done before President Trump takes over (he will want his science back...). 

Over at Nature, Dyna Rochmyaningsih has a good short piece on the importance of basic research for developing countries (the Global South?) and this Indonesian initiative: 
Of course, some in the developing world already study pure science problems. In Indonesia, some researchers are analysing the genetics of Indonesian people and their susceptibility to certain diseases — work that also offers insights into human origins. Others are studying the ecology and evolution of non-human primates. But these efforts are dwarfed by the many government-funded projects on applied topics such as agriculture, pharmacy and animal husbandry. 
Besides the fact that it has less economic value, basic science is not encouraged in developing countries because it is expensive. Almost all such countries allocate less than 1% of gross domestic product to scientific research. In 2016, the grant from Indonesia's Ministry of Research and Technology for a research project rarely exceeded US$100,000 — not enough to buy cutting-edge laboratory equipment. We see a similar picture in other developing countries, including many in Africa. 
Things are starting to change. Earlier this year, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia signed into existence the Indonesian Science Foundation (ISF), an independent funding body for science. The establishment of the ISF is a monumental event. For the first time, Indonesian scientists will have a funding source apart from the national budget (of which the proportion going to science is a very low 0.08%). And, also for the first time, they will get multi-year research grants. The amount will be increased, up to $300,000 per successful research proposal. As a start, the Ministry of Finance has committed to provide $9 million in 2016 for research on life sciences, health and nutrition. 
And the most interesting part is that the new funding agency will not support applied science. Instead it will pay for 'frontier research' on the Universe, Earth, climate, the life sciences, health, nutrition, materials and computational science. 
The new programme might encourage the best Indonesian scientists scattered across the developed world to come back. It should encourage those in Indonesia to do better science. It will certainly grow scientific excellence in the country. Unlike applied science, the goal is not to use research as a tool, but for it to become a valuable and self-sustaining pursuit in its own right. The ISF is intended to create a system in which scientists can work independently, without the need for international support, to assess the scientific questions of their own land and to contribute to the universal quest for knowledge. It offers an opportunity for our scientists to stand on their own feet.
Read the full article here

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