January 7, 2019, by Jason Feehily

With its diaspora, Indonesia can be next scientific powerhouse

Indonesia’s scientists’ diaspora are an important resource that can be harnessed by the government for national growth in research and innovation. Despite lagging in scientific publications, Indonesia has the key ingredients to become a major global research hub. However, it is only when the government is willing to have knowledge exchange through its scientists’ diaspora networks can Indonesia capitalize on its massive potential and become the next powerhouse of science.

To grow, Indonesia needs to transition from a resource-based to a knowledge-based economy which relies heavily on intellectual capital rather than natural resources. In the knowledge-based economy, the scientific system contributes to key functions of knowledge production, human capital development, and transferring knowledge or exchange of ideas between academia and industry, and providing inputs to problem-solving.

China’s government has encouraged knowledge exchange through its diaspora networks and has thus become an important hub for scientific collaboration with North American and European networks. Likewise, Indonesia’s scientists in the diaspora can contribute as agents for knowledge exchange, providing the home-based scientists with links for collaborations, access to new funding sources, and state-of-the-art (often prohibitively expensive to access) experimental apparatuses. The exact format in which the scientists’ diaspora can be utilized optimally should be discussed, to be further formalized in policies.

Previously, a narrow sense of patriotism dominated public discourse on the scientists’ diaspora. Whenever reports emerge of prominent scientists of Indonesian descent making it “big” abroad, often the central question is when the said scientist (s) would return home. In a country moving toward a knowledge-based society, “transnational” thinking needs to be the norm — global links may prove more crucial in driving innovation of the country than its human capital “stock”.

Scientists in the diaspora do not need to return permanently, but rather could act as agents for Indonesian development in science. They could collaborate with the home-based counterparts, and together contribute to the provision of modern, scientifically-informed policies.

Major 21st century problems can only be solved through interdisciplinary, collaborative efforts. Among these problems are sustainable energy, food security, and health. To stand a chance in solving any of these, the global community of scientists must have Indonesia’s active participation. For example, Indonesia has some 40 percent of global geothermal energy reserves. This means a massive 29 gigawatts of potential clean energy which, if cultivated properly, could see Indonesia leading the global renewable energy project in the near future. In food, and health sectors, Indonesia owns some of the most interesting, multivariate subjects of scientific endeavours. All these provide the building blocks for Indonesia’s research and innovation toward becoming the next hub for research collaboration outside the United States, Europe and China.

Often obstacles of global collaborative research are the costs of mobilization of researchers, travel for data sampling and research dissemination. These are the areas where the government can step in and catalyse knowledge exchange. Indeed, the Research and Higher Education Ministry has run a series of knowledge-exchange programs to improve the quality of domestic research. In another instance, a select group of scientists from Indonesia’s diaspora were invited back to participate in over a week-long world class scholars symposium which featured a series of discussions with home-based scientists on potential collaborations. Through its Directorate General of Resources led by professor Ali Ghufron Mukti, the ministry has facilitated temporary visits of scientists in Indonesia’s diaspora to various universities across the country to disseminate their research, foster deeper collaborations and finally, to expose them to international academic atmosphere. I was among those invited back in 2017 and 2018.

The most-needed scientists in our diaspora are those with deep understanding of the trends of a specific research field, with vision for its future development and who have often secured positions overseas. Such scientists would be able to influence the policies of their respective institutions, which may lead to meaningful partnerships between these institutions and the Indonesian government in developing the country’s human capital in research and development.

Following the above exchanges in 2017 and 2018, several strategic scholarship and training programs were developed with the best universities abroad at discounted rates. For example, through the Indonesia Doctoral Training Partnership set up at the University of Nottingham, Indonesia has benefited from more scholarships, supports, and trainings being given to Indonesian students who want to pursue a PhD at one of United Kingdom’s top universities.

The Indonesian government spent Rp 444 trillion (US$ 30 billion) for educatioin 2018, a scant amount compared to China’s $675.3 billion spending for education in 2017. To achieve an impact anywhere close to that of China we need improved multiplier effects which could result from better efficiency and playing to our strengths. Other government agencies with skin in the game also need to realize, and better utilize the potential of Indonesia’s science diaspora.

Bagus Muljadi Assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Nottingham

The writer is an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He is the deputy managing director of the International Association of Indonesian Scientists (I-4) for the UK. He is also director of the Indonesia Doctoral Training Partnership, a pioneering partnership between the Research and Higher Education Ministry and the University of Nottingham.

Article first appeared the The Jakarta Post on 2 Jan 2019

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