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Indonesia's massive research reform triggers layoffs and protests

Science - January 12, 2022

Dyna Rochmyaningsih – On 3 January, Isabella Apriyana grabbed her phone to take a picture of her lab bench and post it on Twitter. "A gloomy Monday morning in the beginning of the year," she tweeted.

Apriyana, a research assistant who helped prominent geneticist Herawati Sudoyo map the genomes of Indigenous groups across Indonesia, had just lost her job at the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, along with 112 other people – about 70% of Eijkman's staff. The institute itself, a flagship of Indonesian science with roots in the colonial era, had ceased to exist as an independent lab.

Eijkman, which focuses on genetic disorders, population genetics, and tropical and emerging diseases, has been absorbed into Indonesia's National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), established last year to streamline Indonesian science. So far, BRIN has swallowed up 33 research agencies in fields as diverse as archaeology, botany, meteorology, and astronomy, including the entire Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Despite protests at Eijkman and elsewhere, hundreds of researchers, technicians, and assistants have lost their jobs because they did not have contracts as civil servants, and BRIN won't offer them such contracts now.

"This is an extraordinary setback for Indonesian science," says Satryo Brodjonegoro, head of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences. He suspects the government is centralizing the research institutes in part to strengthen its control over them. Brodjonegoro says the exodus is disruptive for research and should have been avoided. Science is teamwork, he says: "We can't just break up the research team."

For Eijkman, the merger is the end of an era. Founded in 1888 and housed in a handsome building in central Jakarta, the institute was named after its first director, Dutch pathologist Christiaan Eijkman, who won a Nobel Prize in 1929 for research that led to the discovery of vitamin B1. The institute closed in the 1960s but was resurrected in 1992 by research minister Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, an engineer who later became the country's president. Habibie realized "Indonesia needed to have a capacity in basic science," says Sudoyo, one of the first scientists hired after Eijkman reopened.

Laksana Tri Handoko, head of BRIN, says integrating Eijkman proved problematic because it had hired too many people on temporary contracts, which BRIN does not recognize. In addition, because Handoko wants to increase the share of Indonesian scientists who have a Ph.D., Eijkman researchers with a bachelor's or master's degree were offered a chance to stay on if they entered a university Ph.D. program. But sources at the institute say BRIN only gave them 3 months to do so – and many did not succeed. Eijkman's research will move to BRIN headquarters in Cibinong, some 50 kilometers south of Jakarta. Some other activities will be transferred to the Ministry of Health, which will also inherit the building.

Sudoyo, who also has an affiliation with the University of Indonesia, tells Science she will leave Eijkman and try to find a place where she can continue her research with her current co-workers. "What's most important for me is my team – these passionate and committed bright minds," she says. Sudoyo has several international grants; she hopes her funders will understand her dilemma and let her keep them. "This is force majeure," she says.

Protests have also erupted among technicians on the Baruna Jaya, a research vessel operated by the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology, which BRIN has also taken over. Its crew learned that 50 would have to leave after returning from Sumba island to implement an early warning system for tsunamis. "Before we departed, they told us that we could work for another 6 months. But now, they're forcing us to leave," says Andhika, a technician who has worked on the ship for 7 years. (Like many Indonesians, he goes by a single name.)

Scientists within BRIN, meanwhile, have complained that the new bureaucracy is hard to navigate. To set up an expedition, for example, they have to apply separately for travel and materials, a slow and cumbersome process, says Ibnu Maryanto, a biologist at BRIN. At the Herbarium Bogoriense, which has one of the world's largest collections of dried plants, researchers have had trouble getting access to samples after BRIN took over LIPI's botanical research department, Maryanto says. "I am afraid in the future, scientists will be reluctant to submit collections because of the red tape," he says.

Yet it's too early to judge BRIN, others say. "Every reorganization takes time," says Muhandis Shiddiq, a physicist formerly at LIPI and now at BRIN. Shiddiq applauds Handoko, who worked in Japan for many years, for his efforts to lure Indonesian scientists working abroad. "I hope this policy works," Shiddiq says.

Source: https://www.science.org/content/article/indonesia-s-massive-research-reform-triggers-layoffs-and-protest