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Indonesia has a poor track record in funding R&D, stifling medical progress. Priya Shetty joins a call for funding reform.
The Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) issued a bleak report this week on the state of the country's research and development (R&D) funding.  But it holds no surprises for Indonesia's researchers — they are used to having their scientific ambitions held back by lack of funds.
Indonesia spends just 0.02 per cent (US$300 million) of its GDP on R&D — far less than neighbouring Malaysia, which spends about 0.64 per cent (US$1.1 billion), and much lower than the 1 per cent that most developing countries aim for.
As the report, Creating an Indonesian Science Fund, published by AIPI with support from the World Bank and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), points out, about 80 per cent of the country's R&D spending is government money, which gets tied up in bureaucratic red tape, stifling research.
AIPI proposes to unblock this by creating a central fund similar to the US National Science Foundation. This would distribute government R&D funds efficiently by streamlining the grant-giving process.
Innovative strategies such as these are just what Indonesia needs. The country is already seeing Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore soar above it — in terms of both R&D investment and achievement. If it wants to catch up, it will need to radically shift its approach to R&D funding.
Over-ambitious economic plan
Indonesia's science capacity has stagnated ever since the Asian financial crash in the late 1990s, and the political upheaval after the end of President Suharto's regime around the same time, which stifled progress in R&D.
Last year, the government launched an ambitious economic plan that would put science at the core of its development. But in one respect it is so ambitious as to be meaningless. According to the plan, the country aims to spend 1 per cent of its GDP on R&D by 2014, already quite a challenge, but it also says it will spend 3 per cent by 2025. Currently, even the United States spends only about 2.6 per cent.
Such wildly ambitious plans do nothing to foster confidence among the public or researchers — when the government fails yet again to deliver on its promise, scientists will become more cynical.
Indonesia is also desperate to drive applied research — to find new medical technologies or to apply nanotechnology to health, for instance — yet its basic research is seriously lacking. Somehow, the country wants to leapfrog the necessary steps from basic to applied research to reap the economic gains, but this will be impossible without a solid scientific base.
Needed: partnerships and patents
Last month, while researching a project for the UK Royal Society and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to map Indonesia's science and innovation capacity,  I surveyed over a hundred scientists, university lecturers and policymakers to understand, among other issues, how funding affects biomedical research.
Across the country's universities and government, researchers said that the short-term nature of funding was a major barrier to developing a globally competitive research strategy, because they often get grants for just a year at a time.
Pharmaceutical research suffers particularly from short-term funding, as drug R&D requires years of investment from discovery through to clinical trials. Without decent investment, Indonesian healthcare researchers are forced to import technology and churn out existing drugs in factories instead.
Health is also seriously affected by the lack of public–private partnerships in the country. As about 80 per cent of R&D spending comes from the government, most researchers work in state universities or in government R&D institutions — private investment in R&D is negligible in Indonesia.
Not only is industry extremely risk-averse, spending virtually nothing on R&D (even pharmaceutical companies prefer not to do their own research), but companies also do not cooperate with government research institutions because they view their mindsets as being too different. Public institutions, meanwhile, see industry as only being out to make a profit.
Indonesia will need to alter radically this mutual scepticism, as public–private partnerships can be enormously beneficial to healthcare research in developing countries.
Finally, Indonesia needs to bring its intellectual property system up to speed. Patents drive biomedical research and innovation, yet many researchers are unaware of how patents can protect their work or bring in revenue, and often do not protect their findings. A clearer understanding of intellectual property in the public sector would also foster collaboration with the private sector.
Becoming a global player
Sangkot Marzuki, chairman of AIPI and director of the prestigious Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, has been keen to set up a central science fund for a long time.
Researchers need to be able to rely on sustained funding, and to know that their research will not be under threat every time the ruling political party changes, he says.
If Indonesia can pull this off — no mean feat in a country where even the smallest administrative move must be signed in triplicate — it could revolutionise R&D. The country is keen to show the rest of the world that it is a global research player. Now it is time to make the first move.
Journalist Priya Shetty specialises in developing world issues including health, climate change and human rights. She writes a blog, Science Safari, on these issues. She has worked as an editor at New Scientist, The Lancet and SciDev.Net.