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Politicisation of Indonesia’s state research body shatters technocrat dream – time for scholars to stop being naive and anti-politics

No longer sharing names. Indrianto Eko Suwarso/Antara Foto

The leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), a member of the country’s ruling coalition, will head the supervisory council of the newly established National Research and Innovation Agency (Badan Riset dan Inovasi Nasional or BRIN).

New BRIN chief Laksana Tri Handoko said that, according to a yet-to-be-published presidential regulation, the chair of the state ideology body, the Agency for Pancasila Ideology Education (BPIP), will head the BRIN supervisory council. That will be the matriarch of PDI-P (of which President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is a member), former president Megawati Soekarnoputri.

BRIN had been under the purview of the now-defunct Research and Technology Ministry. The agency will co-ordinate all research by government bodies and universities.

The new oversight of BRIN opens the door to politicisation of research in Indonesia.

Not only could the research budget be misused for narrow political-economy interests, the research institution could be policitised for profit-gaining. This can be done, for example, by giving scientific support to huge projects that do not necessarily benefit the public.

Megawati has previously said BRIN was established as part of an effort to implement the state ideology of Pancasila, instead of to mainstream research.

As such, BRIN is now placed as an instrument of state ideological indoctrination that serves the ruling interests.

This shatters the dream of technocrats who pushed BRIN as a vehicle to create a knowledge and innovation ecosystem that supports the making of quality research-based public policies.

The change in BRIN’s institutional design to be open to political intervention shows how the government is unwilling to prioritise research and technology. It is also evidence of the limitations of technocratic ideas.

Technocratic limitations exposed

The creation of BRIN, under the 2019 law on national system of science and technology, was a technocratic effort to push research-based public policies.

Technocratic ideas rely on changes on an institutional level that underline actor and institution capacity and institutional management. The idea is that a problem happens due to weak actor and institutional capacity, or poor institutional design.

The technocratic solution is to strengthen the capacity of actors working in an institution through various forms of training. Promoting new regulations or bodies, like BRIN, to build a superior research ecosystem is also a form of change based on technocratic ideas.

The Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI), a partnership program between the Indonesian and Australian governments, is one of the main proponents of this approach. KSI is one of The Conversation Indonesia’s donors.

KSI positions itself as catalyst for change that brings together stakeholders to push research-based policymaking.

To realise these technocratic ideas, this partnership program has facilitated meetings between Indonesian ministries - especially between the Research and Technology Ministry, the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), and the Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Ministry - leading to the Science and Innovation (Ekosistem Pengetahuan dan Inovasi or EPI) blueprint. This document aims to “synchronise policies and programs” and various legal regulations in creating this science ecosystem.

KSI also supports involvement by policy research institutions and the scientific community in drafting the law on a national system of science and technology.

However, the government’s manoeuvre in allowing political intervention in BRIN shows the technocratic approach is not enough to bring about meaningful change.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it tends to disregard aspects of power and considers public institutions in a vacuum.

Stanford University anthropologist James Ferguson consider this perspective as anti-politics for disregarding political aspects in understanding realities.

An institution or a regulation can be made with noble intentions, but in the end power relations determine how the institution or regulation will work.

More often than not, technocratic ideas have legitimised power itself.

Second, because of its anti-politics characteristics, this approach tends to be optimistic but naive in looking at a problem. Several articles by Indonesian technocrats on the BRIN debate illustrate this optimism.

Despite political interests having more opportunity to intervene in BRIN, the technocrats still believe the state is on the side of research and innovation.

In fact, the dissolution of the Research and Technology Ministry clearly shows the government does not see building a superior research ecosystem as a priority.

President Jokowi (foreground, left) congratulates Nadiem Makarim (foreground, right) as the new education, culture, research and technology minister at the inauguration ceremony at the State Palace in Jakarta. A picture of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri can be seen in the background. Setpres/Antara Foto

Focus on rent seeking

The politicisation of BRIN also shows research products are not considered important in Indonesian policymaking.

The government clearly prioritises economic development over other fields, including science and technology.

Even in COVID-19 pandemic management, economic concerns took priority over public health matters that put human lives at risk. For example, vaccines were prioritised for working-age adults over vulnerable groups like the elderly. Economic recovery was a stronger motive in decision-making than pandemic mitigation.

But, what kind of economy is the Indonesian government focusing on?

When efforts to build research and innovation ecosystem are marginalised, then rent-seeking economics will be the focus, especially activities that rely on non-renewable resources (extractive industries), which tend to destroy nature and dismiss local/indigenous communities.

It’s a simple logic: if rent-seeking economic activities can generate profit for politico-business alliances, why should they invest more in research that produces no clear profit for these industries?

In the meantime, political control over BRIN also creates opportunities to exploit research resources for profit. It also provides opportunities to make scientific justification for rent-seeking practices.

Rent-seeking economics has become dominant in Indonesia, marked by endemic corruption.

The incapacitation of the Corruption Eradication Commission has given more space to rent-seeking practices.

The dominance of rent-seeking economics dismisses not only liberal economic principles of clean and good governance, but also research- and innovation-based economics.

Weak scientific communities

The politicisation of BRIN also reveals the Indonesian scientific communities’ weakness in analysing political situation and organising effective strategy.

The technocratic approach is too optimistic and ignorant in identifying the strength of scientific communities in generating change. It’s too heavily reliant on documents like EPI blueprints and the establishment of new institutions to build a superior research ecosystem.

Such documents appear to assume the ruling elites have interest in advancing research and innovation. In fact, politicians and businesspeople have their own logics in which accumulating wealth and power is their main interest.

There needs to be either an incentive or threat to push politico-business alliances to put aside their political-economic interest. Blueprints and new institutions like BRIN not only fail to provide incentive or threat, but also pave the way for very different interests to prevail.

EPI blueprints even support problematic laws like the Job Creation Law, which threatens labor rights and the environment, and facilitate rent-seeking practices.

The technocratic approach with its anti-politics attitude needs to be abandoned.

Change, including efforts to build a scientific ecosystem, can only be achieved through political struggle; it is not born out of politicians’ charity and goodwill.

Pushing for change means entering the arena of political fights: between advancing research against wealth-accumulating interests, and between science-based economics versus rent-seeking economics.

But political struggle is not about lobbying or seeking positions within the power structure in the hope of achieving change from within. That would be equivalent to submitting to subjugation or purposely seeking profit for self.

What needs to be done is to transform the scientific communities together with other social groups concerned with justice and welfare into a political power able to subdue the predatory alliance of politicians and businesspeople.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the Knowledge Sector Initiative is one of The Conversation Indonesia’s donors.

This article was originally published in Indonesian

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