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Bajau tribe village.

‘Helicopter research’: who benefits from international studies in Indonesia?

In April 2018, research on Indonesia’s Bajau people made the headlines. These “sea nomads” were found to have a genetic adaptation that results in large spleens that can supply extra oxygenated red blood cells.

But a month later the article attracted critiques from Indonesian scientists. An article in Science questioned the ethics of scientists from Denmark and the US who took and analysed DNA samples of the Bajau people.

While their argument relates to ethics and research permit, the story highlights a more important issue of the widespread nature of “helicopter research” conducted in Indonesia.

Helicopter research

Helicopter research has nothing to do with aircraft; it typically describes when researchers from wealthier countries fly to a developing country like Indonesia, take samples, fly out, analyse the samples elsewhere, and publish the results with little involvement of local scientists. At best, local scientists are used to provide logistics.

Helicopter research is dishonoured in genomics research. African scientists have called for more control of their continent’s genomic data by issuing guidelines. However, it is rampant in many fields of research.

One of us, Dian Fiantis, who is based at Universitas Andalas in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia, has had many experiences in research collaboration with overseas researchers. She have been working with soil scientists from Belgium, Malaysia, US, Canada and Australia since 1993.

For Dian, there are positive relationships between research collaboration and research output. Collaboration improves the quantity and quality of local researchers and elevates scientific skills and capabilities.

Collaboration allows scientists from both developing and developed countries to share knowledge, expertise and techniques. It also expedites the research process and increases visibility.

But there are times when it’s obvious that international researchers are not interested in collaboration. For example, in 2010 a group of soil researchers from a developed country asked Dian to help collect soil samples from paddy fields in West Sumatra.

From the beginning, it was obvious that these international researchers were only interested in her ability to locate and collect soil samples. Dian received an international publication out of this, but was not involved in any of the research.

The results of this study may contribute to the international research community; however, it does not provide any scientific impetus to the local researchers. The resulting science itself is not meaningful to Indonesia as it is just used as a location in the tropics.

Dian has since decided not to collaborate with international scientists who are only interested in collecting samples.

Colonial research

Indonesia’s rich tropical nature and unique ecosystems and cultures have attracted colonial research since the Dutch occupation. The Dutch conducted research in agriculture, soil science, biology, and other fields of science.

The main beneficiary of such research has generally been the colonial state through increased economic output. Research in their colonies was also a way to demonstrate to the world the colonisers’ superiority in gathering knowledge.

Since independence, there have been many many foreign-funded research projects in Indonesia. Unfortunately, some of the international research has continued to use the colonial research model.

This neo-colonialist research was conducted by researchers from wealthier countries who have access to funding and new technologies. Most of the researchers work on the assumption that they have the right to study other nation’s resources in the name of science.

Helicopter research in Indonesia can be identified from publications mainly authored by international researchers, with one or two Indonesian researchers at the end of the authors list. Most international research in Indonesia falls into this category.

Some local scientists may be satisfied with this kind of arrangement. But the research outputs do not benefit Indonesia’s research knowledge, community or infrastructure.

In our area of research in soil science, for example, the disastrous peat fires of recent years have attracted international research funding for work in Indonesia. As a result, many published scientific papers were authored by international scientists with little involvement of Indonesian scientists. It seems that years of research produce little benefit to Indonesian scientists and communities who need practicable solutions to map their peatlands, and better water management techniques.

Doing it right

International research should involve local scientists and build their research capacity. The research results should be fed back to the communities. But these good principles are rarely practised.

International research should truly be a synergistic collaboration that benefits all involved. Local researchers don’t need token participation by adding them as co-authors.

International researchers should not only involve local researchers to gain research permits and help with logistics. There is a need to provide training to postgraduate students or young researchers in the latest technology and offer technologies to be used in-country, which may be difficult to get in Indonesia. It is imperative to involve Indonesian scientists in analysing and publishing the results.

Collaborative research should benefit local scientists. Building these kind of positive relationships will demonstrate the real value of development work.

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