Indonesian scientists hamstrung by year-long funding delay

The country's dedicated science fund has failed to raise enough money to finance projects.

Indonesian scientists were hopeful a new science funding agency would reverse years of insufficient research investment.Credit: Darren Whiteside/Reuters

Indonesian scientists expecting to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for research are stuck in limbo because the country’s first dedicated science-funding agency is struggling to raise enough money.

After years of insufficient research funding, scientists were delighted when the Indonesian Science Fund (ISF) launched, in March 2016. Its aim was to boost investment in research and improve research quality. The following May, it opened up applications for grants worth up to 1.5 billion rupiah (US$110,000) a year for 3 years. Scientists submitted 467 proposals in areas such as health and nutrition.

Almost 18 months later, the ISF, which is managed by the Indonesian Academy of Sciences in Jakarta, says it has selected projects that deserve to be funded, but does not have the money to give to researchers.

“The delay from ISF is very disappointing,” says a researcher in Jakarta who was told in February 2017 that their application may be accepted but was asked to revise their project budget. The scientist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing the payment, says that they have not heard from the ISF since. “I am trying to find international research funding. But as long as we don’t get any official rejection from ISF, it is unethical for us to send [our] research proposal to other funding agencies,” they said. “In this situation, scientists are the victims.”

Although the ISF seeks money from a range of sources, including philanthropy and foreign donors, the Indonesian government committed US$3 million to the funding agency in its first year, through the finance ministry’s Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education. The endowment fund also signed a memorandum of understanding with the ISF, agreeing to give the agency money for five years.

Teguh Rahardjo, the ISF’s executive director, says that although the ISF has received some of this cash, it is not enough to support all of its grant programmes. Government budget constraints have contributed to the agency’s funding shortfall, he says.

Rahardjo says peer reviewers have selected ten applicants that “deserve to be funded” and the agency is now searching for other sources of money. “Financing research for basic science is the responsibility of the government. I will focus on raising funds from the [ministries of finance and research],” he says.

Rahardjo says that the ISF was able to contribute $12 billion rupiah this year toward research grants for collaborations between Indonesian and UK universities. The programme is also supported by the Newton Fund, a British research-development group.

Limited funding sources

Indonesian researchers have typically had to rely on yearly funding from the national budget, which invests only 0.08% of the country’s gross domestic product in scientific research a year. But some scientists argue that the process by which this money is awarded by various ministries, including the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, to universities or research centres isn’t open and transparent. Syarif Hidayat, the head of legal, cooperation and information services at the ministry, denies that the funding process is not open and says the ministry is working on ways to stretch research funding over multiple years.

The ISF was established to address these problems and support long-term research. It is inspired by funding agencies in other countries, such as the US National Science Foundation, and relies on independent peer review to award research funding.

“It is very unfortunate that ISF postpones this grant,” says molecular biologist Riza Putranto at the Indonesian Research Institute for Biotechnology and Bioindustry in Bogor. “We cannot rely on national budget alone to conduct high-quality research in Indonesia,” says Putranto, who learned in March 2017 that his application for ISF funding was not successful. “We chose ISF because it is a multi-year research grant just like those in the US or Europe,” he says.

The Ministry of Finance or its Indonesia Endowment Fund for Education did not respond to Nature’s questions about budget constraints or the endowment’s agreement to finance the ISF for five years.

Nature 554, 415-416 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-02118-7
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