Scientific knowledge may be universal but the organisation of knowledge is always political. Knowledge can expand our minds, reveal the truth, and challenge absolutism. But because knowledge exists in specific historical and social contexts, the organisation of knowledge is affected by a variety of interests and power structures.
This is clear from the debate that has erupted over the newly announced National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). It began a few years ago, when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo complained about research centres in government departments absorbing large amounts of funds but resulting in few innovations. At the time, the minister of research, technology and higher education said the government wanted to create a “home base” for research and innovation. This centre would replace the research centres scattered across government agencies and ministries.
It was clear that the main motive behind the creation of the BRIN was to improve efficiency and coordination. Initially, BRIN was to be under the authority of the minister of research, technology and higher education. But this plan has since changed – research, technology and higher education will now be handled by the minister of education, while BRIN will be its own agency.
This change did not occur smoothly. The president first issued a presidential regulation that positioned BRIN under the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, but the regulation stalled at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Then the president issued a new regulation, Perpres No. 33 of 2021, absorbing the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education into the Ministry of Education, and positioning the BRIN directly under the president.
Jokowi appointed the head of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Laksana Tri Handoko, as the new head of BRIN. But according to the Perpres (Article 7(2)), the head of the Supervisory Board of the Agency for Pancasila Ideology Education (BPIP), a position currently held by Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chair Megawati Soekartnoputri, will also be appointed to lead BRIN’s Supervisory Board. In other words, this was a formal policy positioning science and research under the political ideology of the government.
The appointment of the head of LIPI as the head of BRIN was relatively uncontroversial, especially given LIPI’s long history of supporting the academic community in Indonesia. But questions have been raised about the appointment of the head of the BPIP board – a position that requires no academic credentials – to the head of the BRIN board.
Even so, it is not particularly surprising given PDI-P’s role in the establishment of BRIN. Megawati has previously stated that all research must be conducted in line with the state ideology, Pancasila. PDI-P politicians have also argued that Megawati is continuing the legacy of her father, Soekarno, who they view as the pioneer of science and technology research in Indonesia. In response, Indonesian academics have criticised this political appointment for expanding political intervention and control of the research community.
Positioning academic research under the supervision and guidance of the state ideology is incompatible with a democratic society. The universal principles of freedom of thought and inquiry are vital for the development of sciences, research and innovation. Standardising research according to political ideology, on the other hand, presumes obedience to doctrine.
In fact, the co-opting of science and knowledge production by the state is not new in Indonesia – it dates back to the colonial era. During the Dutch occupation, scientific research was dominated by Europeans. It was a way to understand and conquer a tropical climate that was viewed as foreign and dangerous. Meanwhile, social science was developed by the colonial government as a way of understanding – and therefore controlling – their colonial subjects.
After independence, Indonesian scientists who were trained by the Dutch set about decolonising knowledge and knowledge institutions in the country. In his book, “The Floracrats: State-Sponsored Science and the Failure of the Enlightenment in Indonesia” (2011), historian Andrew Goss documented how this decolonisation process led to a great deal of optimism among the early scientists and researchers. Intellectuals in the early Independence era were influenced by ideas of the Enlightenment and believed in the ability of knowledge to lead to progressive change in the world.
This optimism quickly faded in the late 1950s, under Soekarno’s Guided Democracy. According to Goss, even if the Soekarno regime did not intend to control research and knowledge production oppressively, it encouraged senior academics and researchers to produce policy that was in line with Guided Democracy. Consequently, researchers ended up treating the state as the main audience for their work, as well as their main guarantor.
Another policy of the Guided Democracy years was to transform the relatively autonomous Indonesian Council of Sciences (MIPI) into a bureaucratic agency. Initially, MIPI was an independent agency, designed to respond to criticism of colonial-era research councils that were viewed more as government tools to restrict academic freedom. The transformation of MIPI by Soekarno’s National Planning Board (Depernas) marked the beginning of a period when science was expected to serve the goals of the government, just as it had under the Dutch.
When the New Order came to power in 1966, there was new hope that an independent scientific community could emerge. But these hopes also faded quickly. The New Order soon set about supervising and controlling the intellectual community. It fundamentally transformed the character of research institutes and pushed a single doctrine: research for development.
Soeharto’s relationship with the Indonesian Economists Association (ISEI) is often cited as an example of how research and knowledge production was controlled and made consistent with the goals and ideology of the New Order. In the social sciences too, New Order pressure on the intellectual community also resulted in a focus on theories emphasising harmony and function and connections to the regime’s development goals.
This bureaucratisation of knowledge has continued through to the current day, and has arguably become even more pronounced. This can be seen in Law No. 11 of 2019 on the National System of Science and Technology, which is the legal basis for Perpres No. 33 of 2021.
This law includes one element not seen previously – it makes it a criminal offence for foreign researchers to conduct research not in accordance with their research permit. The ostensible goal of these criminal provisions is to ensure the outcomes of research are not taken or controlled by foreign parties to Indonesia’s cost. But the threat of criminalisation could just as easily be abused to censor or pressure critical foreign researchers.
A result of this new threat of criminalisation is that it will change the relationship between formal research institutions and the state, bringing them closer to power. Some academics and researchers view a strong state as a form of protection from the “invasion” of foreign researchers, who they regard as competitors. But this protection will come at a high cost. In the long term, the bureaucratisation of research will result in intellectuals being shackled – they will lose their competitiveness and creativity.
It is here that we also see the seductive power of decolonisation, a seemingly never-ending covert mission of Indonesian intellectuals. Nationalistic sentiment can often determine the characteristics and goals of research in Indonesia, and can even triumph over scientific principles. Indonesia’s response to Covid-19 is a good example. Too often it seems like a tug of war between scientific evidence and cultural particularism and nationalism. Take, for example, the controversy over the “Nusantara Vaccine”, where nationalism seemed to trump the results of National Agency of Drug and Food Control (BPOM) evaluations.
Indonesia has many outstanding intellectuals across a wide range of fields. But they have achieved success because of their own hard work and intelligence, not through any support from the state. In fact, in many cases the state bureaucracy only created obstacles that hampered individuals’ achievements.
“Educating the nation” is stated as a national goal in the Indonesian Constitution. But education can only occur when there is freedom. Aspirations for an independent institution for academics in Indonesia faded long ago, maybe even in the late 1950s. Perhaps that is why Indonesia has so few researchers and scientists who are known as public intellectuals. To become a public intellectual requires not only a love of science and learning, but also the now-elusive autonomy to be able to change society.