A white man wearing a raincoat and rucksack looks through binoculars in a misty forest in New Guinea.

Foreign researchers in Indonesia face strict regulations if a draft law is approved.Credit: Tim Laman/naturepl.com

Scientists in Indonesia fear that a government plan to introduce strict rules for foreign researchers will scare off potential collaborators and hamper experiments. The proposals also suggest tough new penalties, including prison sentences, for foreign scientists who break some existing rules, such as the requirement to have research permit.

Next month, representatives from two science academies will meet with politicians in the hope of convincing them to reconsider the proposals.

“The new regulations will only repel foreign scientists to do research in Indonesia, and this is not good for Indonesia’s science,” says Berry Juliandi, a member of the Young Academy of Sciences and a biologist at Bogor Agricultural University. The contribution of international scientists is crucial for Indonesian research because foreign science agencies have larger budgets and more sophisticated technology, he says.

Government documents state that the proposed regulations for international science are designed to protect Indonesia’s natural resources and to increase local science capacity.

Inclusion rules

The proposals are among several outlined in a draft law submitted to the House of Representatives in August 2017. If the house approves the law, international scientists will have to submit their raw data to the research ministry; involve Indonesian colleagues as equal partners in research projects; and name all Indonesian researchers involved in a project on every peer-reviewed paper that arises from the work.

In February, Sadjuga, the research ministry’s director of intellectual property, told a conference on international research collaborations that in the past, some international groups had “disregarded” the contribution of Indonesian scientists and left their names off peer-reviewed papers. Of the 832 international science publications that resulted from foreign research projects in Indonesia between 2010 and 2016, 6% had not named an Indonesian co-author, he says.

The draft law also imposes harsh penalties on foreign researchers who break existing regulations. For instance, foreign scientists will still need a government permit to do research, and a special transfer agreement to remove specimens from Indonesia, but breaking these rules would be upgraded to a criminal offence. Researchers could face a prison sentence of up to two years, or hefty fines of as much as 2 billion Indonesia rupiah (US$143,000). The current penalty for a researcher who violates a permit can vary from a verbal warning to the permit being revoked. The Indonesian government issued close to 3,500 research permits between 2010 and 2016, to 741 foreign scientists. There has been no consistent national policy or penalty for scientists who remove specimens without an agreement.

The draft law would also require that international scientists do research that produces “beneficial output for Indonesia”.

Erik Meijaard, a Dutch conservation scientist at the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia, who studies orangutans in Borneo, says that the proposal is “unworkable” for foreign researchers. “You could do a few years’ research, find out that the outcomes do not benefit Indonesia, and then you cannot publish,” he says.

Meijaard adds that overall the draft law seems vague and is "certain to turn away foreign researchers and stop people from studying in Indonesia if there is an unclear risk of being fined or sent to jail.”

The science ministry’s director general for research and development reinforcement, Muhammad Dimyati, does not believe that the new regulations will hamper collaborations. "We encourage foreign scientists to publish their research conducted in Indonesia. But they should not write alone and they have to involve Indonesian scientists. This will certainly give benefits to Indonesia's science," he adds.

Dimyati says every country has a right to protect its natural resources for the welfare of its people. “The sanctions are intended to remind scientists about their role in society, which is to find innovation that is beneficial for mankind without violating regulations of a country,” he says.

Mixed support

Not all researchers think the penalties are a bad idea. Laksana Handoko, a physicist at the Indonesian Institute of Science in Jakarta, supports criminal punishments for researchers who take specimens out of the country without a transfer agreement. It’s stealing, he says.

Jason von Meding of the University of Newcastle in Australia, who studies disaster risk-reduction in southeast Asia, says that scientists in developing countries need protection for their work — and that international scientists should not be afraid of the draft law if they’ve done nothing wrong. “For an ethical researcher, it should not be too difficult to follow,” says von Meding. But he thinks that less severe sanctions would be more appropriate than the proposed criminal penalties.

Sadjuga says it could be some time before the proposals become law, because members of the House of Representative still have to debate the draft, and they are busy preparing for a general election in 2019. “We are heading to a political year. I doubt the draft law will be discussed continuously in the House,” he says.