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Tsunami scientists clash with Indonesian government over rules on foreign research

International researchers fear data that could help determine the tsunami's cause will disappear before they can get to it.

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Damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Donggala beach in Palu

International researchers are waiting to be granted access to study the aftermath of the tsunami. Credit: Hariandi Hafid/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Two weeks after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 2,000 people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, some foreign researchers say that red tape is slowing down or preventing investigative work of the devastated coastlines.

But the Indonesian government says that it has sped up the time it takes to process permits for researchers in the wake of the tsunami, and that the requirements it imposes on international researchers have been in place for years.

Time matters

“It is absolutely important for us to go to the field to survey the correct locations,” says tsunami researcher Philip Liu, vice president for research and technology at the National University of Singapore. “But when I asked for a permit, I understood that it might take months.” As a result, Liu decided not to research the area after all.

Meanwhile, an international reconnaissance team led by Costas Synolakis, a tsunami researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, had rushed to Singapore a week after the tsunami hit, hoping to get to Indonesia. But they learned that all team members must submit detailed survey plans and research proposals that include local collaborators.

They say that this rule was not enforced before, and fear that this might delay the planned survey by several weeks, time they can ill afford. “Disaster surveys need to mobilize in the first few days after the disaster, before the data needed to better understand the event is permanently eradicated," says Synolakis.

The Sulawesi events are of exceptional interest to Southern California and the Mediterranean, where active tectonic faults close to the coast could likewise trigger unpredictably large tsunamis, says Synolakis, who is still in Singapore awaiting his research permit and visa, although some of his team have returned home.

But Sadjuga, the head of the team at the research ministry that grants research permits to foreign scientists, says that international researchers have been required to apply for research permits, and report their research findings to their local Indonesian partners for a "long time". "It has been the normal procedure in Indonesia," he says.

Rules and restrictions

According to rules, which the government says are not new, foreign scientists who want to do research in the country need to obtain a permit from the Indonesian Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, a process that can be subject to time-consuming rules and procedures, before they are granted a research visa by the immigration ministry.

Sadjuga says the government understands the importance of timely data collection at the site. "That is why we are currently speeding up the research permit process."

He says that it normally takes researchers 14-28 days to gain a research permit, but for teams wanting to visit Palu, the capital of central Sulawesi province, the ministry is trying to give them out within 7 days.

Two international teams, one from South Korea and another from the United States, have applied for permits, Sadjuga says. "We gave a research permit to a Korean team on October 10. The US proposal has not been granted a permit as the applicants have not completed all the requirements," he says.

Synolakis, who is behind the US proposal, says it will take at least another week to meet all requirements. Some of his team who have teaching or other obligations cannot wait so long and have returned.

A few Japanese researchers have collected data in the disaster area along with the local survey team. Taro Arikawa of Chuo University in Tokyo presented the preliminary results of their survey at a 10-11 October tsunami workshop in Singapore.

It is still unclear exactly what kind of underwater disturbance triggered the tsunami. Tide-gauge data, and reported tsunami height and arrival time, suggest a source near the entrance to the Bay of Palu, says Liu, who convened the meeting.

“It could be a submarine landslide triggered by the earthquake, or it could have been generated by sudden subsidence of the seafloor,” he says. “In both scenarios a tsunami will propagate into the bay."

Sharing data

Arikawa plans to return to the disaster region this week to collect more data at locations that might help establish the tsunami source. He promised the meeting he would report back to colleagues who are unable to do field work in the area.

“As long as the tsunami community exchanges ideas and information openly it does not matter so much whether I can get in,” says Liu. “But there are so many different ideas and so much to do. Allowing only a few people to go in might mean that a lot of fresh evidence and information will be lost."

J.C. Gaillard, a geographer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, says Indonesia is right in taking control of post-disaster research.

“No one knows and understands the context and local concerns, including research needed to enhance disaster risk-reduction policy and practice, better than the Indonesians,” he says. “This does not mean that foreign researchers should be excluded. But local researchers, supported by local institutions, should take the lead in designing relevant and culturally appropriate research projects. They should also lead data collection and analysis as well as potential publications afterwards.”

The Indonesian government is trying to introduce through parliament tougher penalties for foreign researchers who break existing regulations, including a two-year prison sentence for those found without a permit.

Nature 562, 317-318 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07030-8

Additional reporting by Dyna Rochmyaningsih

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