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Indonesia’s R&D growing pains

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The Bandung city command centre in West Java, Indonesia, 23 August, 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Michael Taylor).

In Brief

At the end of January 2023, the Indonesian parliamentary standing committee that oversees energy, research and industry policy called for the president to remove the head of Indonesia's National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) Laksana Tri Handoko. This highlights the ongoing challenges faced by the young organisation since its inception in 2019. In its short history, BRIN has continued to attract controversies concerning its governance, program and personnel.


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This latest controversy involves the dissemination of sensitive research materials. The committee’s motion for Handoko’s removal cited examples of unauthorised public statements made by a BRIN researcher regarding an impending natural disaster and the leaking of a confidential state budget to reporters. The committee argued that, by sharing this information, BRIN overstepped its boundaries and displayed a lack of control over its staff.

This dispute seems to reflect differing perceptions of transparency and the budgetary tensions between BRIN and the government, rather than leadership failure. The committee argued that, while BRIN’s data on the impending disaster was accurate, the research agency does not have the authority to issue public warnings on weather-related disasters.

Yet, such governance issues are not uncommon for young organisations, and these particular issues seem to have limited impacts. The committee’s final comment addressed BRIN’s ability to secure only a quarter of its intended budget, a problem that BRIN has limited power to resolve internally. BRIN’s controversies reflect its brief and tumultuous history. Originally part of the Ministry of Research and Technology, BRIN was established when the ministry was decommissioned to make way for the Ministry of Investment.

This decision illustrates Indonesia’s long struggle to elevate research and development (R&D) and innovation activities into a strategic tool for economic development. The university research responsibility of the now defunct Ministry of Research and Technology was delegated to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology while BRIN became the amalgamation of all public research institutions across Indonesia.

Indonesia decided to centralise its R&D to reduce the overlap between numerous public and ministerial research institutions. Both decentralised and centralised R&D models have success stories. The United States and Europe are known for decentralised R&D, while Singapore and South Korea use a centralised model. Even within the decentralised model, there are growing efforts for efficiency gains through coordination, such as the European Union’s efforts to harmonise its members’ intellectual property rights and create a centralised health data infrastructure and the United Kingdom’s decision to bring together seven disciplinary research councils under one agency in 2018.

Indonesia’s research super-agency was established based on the South Korean model of science, technology and innovation governance. Both BRIN and the Korean National Science and Technology Council have similar organisation charts and mandates to consolidate and coordinate all public research institutions under one roof. The organisation can generally be divided between upper-level governance serving advisory functions and lower-level operational functions.

BRIN adopted an updated model of the Korean National Science and Technology Council, which includes top-level officials such as the Minister of Planning and National Development and the Minister of Finance in its advisory board. The intention is to empower the agency with cross-institutional authority, principally regarding the planning and budgeting of R&D activities.

But repeated challenges suggest that BRIN is still struggling to maximise the authority of its advisory board. The agency’s media release after the parliamentary tussle implies difficulty in consolidating the R&D resources from the ministerial research units it now absorbs — a problem that could be easily addressed with an adequate legal mandate.

To bridge this resource gap, BRIN is pursuing research collaborations with domestic and international science, technology and innovation actors. These collaborations are relatively low-cost and expose Indonesian researchers to global knowledge flows.

The agency directs most of its limited budget toward research infrastructure revitalisation. Revitalising the equipment that Indonesian researchers use is crucial and long overdue. BRIN’s attempt to establish an open research ecosystem may be its best option given current resource constraints. Indonesian academics have benefitted from BRIN’s open research ecosystem, offering hope for lasting improvements in Indonesia’s research governance despite possible prolonged R&D budget woes.

With less than two years of operation under its belt, BRIN may continue to face criticism and doubts from various stakeholders — a typical feature of early-stage policy transfer cases. While BRIN can be considered a success in terms of transferring an science, technology and innovation governance model, it has yet to prove to be a programmatic and political success. Time is not on BRIN’s side, as the current administration will be out of office in October 2024, putting this young organisation under huge public and political pressure to prove its positive impact on Indonesia’s science, technology and innovation landscape.

BRIN is finding ways to work around these challenges, many of which are beyond its control. Ultimately, the development of Indonesia’s R&D environment depends not only on BRIN’s success but also on the political will to prioritise R&D in Indonesia’s development agenda.

Andree Surianta is an Australia Awards PhD Scholar at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, and an Associate Researcher at the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS), Jakarta.

Hali Aprimadya is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University supported by The Indonesian Education Endowment Fund (LDPD) scholarship, and an analyst at National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), Jakarta.

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