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Indonesia’s scientific diaspora launches ‘matchmaking’ scheme to boost global research collaboration

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Researchers from the International Indonesian Scholars Association (I4) have launched a new “matchmaking” platform to connect scientists based in Indonesia with those working abroad. The goal is to improve the country’s international collaboration in scientific research.

Research Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro hopes this program will be a new milestone on Indonesia’s journey to becoming a developed country with a research-driven economy.

“To achieve this, scientists at home must work hand in hand with our diaspora to optimise the pool of talent and resources,” he said.

I4 announced the program last week during Indonesia’s annual World Scholars Forum (Forum Cendekia Kelas Dunia) – held via a two-day Zoom conference and Youtube live stream.

The scheme attempts to improve upon Indonesia’s three previous matchmaking programs: the government-sponsored RISPRO International Collaboration grant, the MIT-Indonesia Research Alliance (MIRA) and the World Class University (WCU) collaboration scheme.

These programs are either limited to Indonesia’s top universities or restricted to a certain period every year.

Sastia Putri, an assistant professor at Osaka University, is the diaspora association’s secretary-general. She said these constraints had left most of the country’s scientists to connect sporadically with global researchers through individual efforts.

“We wanted something more than just connecting through email or Whatsapp like we usually do. We needed a systematic platform,” she said.

The matchmaking platform aims to increase Indonesian scientists’ involvement in international research. In 2019, only 17.12% of research papers produced by Indonesian scientists were authored multinationally. Indonesia lags behind Southeast Asian neighbours Singapore (68.57%) and Malaysia (42.91%).

Low international collaboration in research is concerning, as suggested by a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Chicago in Illinois, US.

Looking at research published between 1996 and 2012, the study found papers by authors from only one country correlated with placement in worse journals and lower citation numbers.

In the past 25 years, for example, Indonesia’s research citation is among the worst in Southeast Asia. The average is only five citations per document, lagging behind nine other ASEAN countries.

A systematic way to connect Indonesia’s talents

The matchmaking scheme works by connecting applicants – an Indonesian scientist based in the country – with another scientist abroad who might be a potential collaborator.

The main output of this scheme is a joint publication.

“Many people have reached out to the diaspora community, asking for opportunities to work on joint publications. Publications are the most concrete output of scientific collaborations,” Sastia said.

“It can be in two stages. They can already have preliminary findings and want to conduct further experiments with a scientist abroad, or they are already in the writing stage and want to fine-tune the publication draft with help from a diaspora.”

Applicants will become the main correspondent of this joint publication. They are required to register as a member of the association and hold at least a PhD qualification.

Sastia describes the matchmaking as a “cupid-like” process. It is conducted through a platform organised by the association, via peer review.

A flowchart depicting how the matchmaking program works. International Indonesian Scholars Association (I4), CC BY

The organising committee is headed by Teruna Siahaan, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Kansas, United States.

“To make it fair, the process will be double blind [both parties cannot see who they will be paired with] until they are actually matched. This makes us only look at the submitted abstract’s quality, and nothing else,” Sastia explained.

“The organisers will then recommend the pairing of said applicant with a pool of potential diaspora registered with the association, spread across a wide range of scientific fields.”

A total of 14 scientific clusters are available in the scheme – including agriculture, disaster management, robotics, the social sciences and humanities.

Collaborations first, grants second

Bagus Putra Muljadi, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, is the association’s head of communications. He says another benefit of this scheme is that scientists can have a collaboration ready way before research grants are announced.

“We don’t want a merely ‘reactive’ matchmaking program whereby a grant is announced and then we rush to contact fellow scientists. Collaborations musn’t be rushed, they’re not one-week sprints,” he said.

Therefore, Bagus said, the matchmaking scheme will give Indonesian scientists an edge when applying for prominent international research grants.

For instance, the RISPRO International Collaboration grants – a funding scheme initiated by the Ministry of Research, the Endowment Fund of Education, and the Indonesian Science Fund with a deadline of June every year – provide up to Rp 2 billion for every approved project.

However, it requires that applicants already have a collaborator affiliated with a foreign institution.

“Great collaboration should not just be a marriage of convenience, for example an Indonesian economist meets a biologist, so then they decide to apply for a bioeconomics grant. It’s not like that,” Bagus stressed.

“The process should be rigorous. Scientists get to know each other, understand their research, conduct preliminary experiments and simulations, etc. We have to understand this complexity, and that’s what [I4] is trying to facilitate.”

The future of domestic-diaspora collaboration

Arif Satria, president of IPB University and head of the Indonesian Rector Forum, said this matchmaking scheme is a good step for improving Indonesia’s scientific capacity.

“If in the future we can expand this scheme to also collaborate with Indonesian universities directly, we can conduct benchmarks in numerous fields. For instance, understanding the gap in stem cell research between MIT and Indonesian institutions,” he said.

“This gap analysis can then help direct our scientific infrastructure development – how much funding is needed, what kind of new facilities we need, and so on.”

Indonesia’s latest National Research Plan, announced in 2017, targets the country to achieve “developed” status by the end of 2045 through advances in research – including work driven by global collaboration.

“We just celebrated 75 years of independence. In the economic sector, Indonesia has just turned from a lower-middle-income country into an upper-middle-income country. To become a developed nation, there is no other way but to become a research-and-innovation-based economy,” Minister Bambang said.

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