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Researchers face uphill battle to help with COVID-19 fight

Jakarta Post - April 13, 2020

Made Anthony Iswara, Jakarta – Researchers say they see themselves walking a long, winding road in helping the government battle the COVID-19 outbreak, as broader research is needed to improve countermeasures nationwide.

According to Indonesian Young Academy of Science (ALMI) secretary-general Berry Juliandi, the government has either been slow to adopt or ignored some of the association's scientific-based recommendations.

For instance, the government's decision to release inmates was contrary to the researchers' suggestion to close prison doors for outside visitors to slow the virus' spread. Their recommendation to ban this year's Idul Fitri exodus and to use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests instead of serum-based rapid tests are examples of slow adoptions of their advice.

"The path is steep for researchers to give science-based advice to the government," Berry said. "Sometimes, the government gives us the impression that they don't immediately believe our recommendations."

Berry's concern is among a slew of challenges that Indonesian researchers face despite research being highly needed in the current efforts against the virus, which has infected 3,842 people nationwide as Saturday afternoon.

Convoluted bureaucracy is another roadblock that has hampered swift research on the pandemic, which has forced researchers to spend more time caring about financial administrations than the actual research.

On top of that, Indonesia has to juggle with a limited budget that is much smaller than what neighboring countries spend. The Research and Technology Ministry's 2020 budget also saw the largest cut compared to other ministries in the state budget revision on April 3 in an effort to finance COVID-19 measures, among other financial resources.

Berry urged the government to use its eternal fund scheme to fund urgent COVID-19 needs and hold an open call for researchers outside state research institutions like the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), as many scholars lacked access to a recent consortium scheme.

On March 26, the Research and Technology Ministry and the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) formed a consortium to develop protection gear, rapid test kits, medicine and vaccines, among other purposes. Research and Technology Minister and BRIN head Bambang Brodjonegoro said in a recent teleconference that the consortium would not only involve state institutions but also the private sector and universities that were adept at health-related studies.

The ministry is also rolling out an IDEAthon contest from Monday to April 20 to encourage greater public participation in proposing innovative ideas that could help with the COVID-19 fight.

Bambang launched another scheme last Thursday that will allow local research groups from universities, NGOs and state institutions to partner with Indonesian scholars living abroad to propose research ideas on COVID-19, due on May 30.

The International Indonesian Scholars Association (I-4) estimates there are around 477 Indonesians living abroad who have PhDs and are currently actively researching in their respective institutions.

"This scheme is not just for studies related to health, pharmaceuticals, biology or chemistry. Instead, we want to encourage interdisciplinary studies to solve and deliberate on COVID-19," Bambang said.

If approved, the recipient will receive a grant of up to Rp 2 billion (US$127,112) per year for up to three years, depending on the study's scope and expected outcome. Because the scheme will use funds from the Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP) and not the yearly state budget, Bambang said the financial administration for the multiyear scheme would be easier.

The ministry will be using the program every year for other topics in the future.

The I-4 secretary-general Sastia Prama Putri lauded efforts to involve more Indonesians abroad, saying that her association would be ready to help solve national problems, including the COVID-19 crisis.

But with lockdowns and travel restrictions still in place in various countries, she said scholars abroad could only contribute their know-how for now. In the long run, she expressed hope that countries could form more partnerships to ease transfers of technology and research samples as well as solve clashing intellectual property laws in different nations.

"We hope that this research-innovation diaspora scheme could be a good initial milestone to a sustainable partnership for the sake of building our nation wherever we are," said Sastia.

Surabaya-based natural product chemistry researcher Sri Fatmawati said she had received little information on how to join the COVID-19 fight despite being keen on researching supplements that could boost the immune system against the novel coronavirus.

Instead, Sri and her peers have received numerous open invitations from foreign institutions and universities to propose research ideas.

"In the current uncertain situation, with a vaccine for COVID-19 still unavailable, shouldn't [the government] be more open?" Sri said on Thursday.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/04/12/researchers-face-uphill-battle-to-help-with-covid-19-fight.html