Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Someone should tell the Indonesian President that virtually nothing has been achieved with the national orangutan action plan.

But until Indonesian scientists step up to the plate, he will have to wait a little longer for that information.

Indonesia Has Its Share Of Scientists, So Where’s the Science?

In 2007, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched Indonesia’s national orangutan action plan, which calls for all remaining wild populations of orangutans to be stabilized by 2017. It is both an ambitious goal and a highly laudable one. But with regard to the specific plan, how does the president know whether it is a good one?

Under ideal conditions, this is where good scientists enter the picture. They should be able to tell the president that his government — hypothetically speaking — has invested $20 million into implementing the plan, has secured 30 percent of the remaining wild orangutan populations and is perfectly on track to achieve its 2017 target.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to say any of this because we haven’t got much of a clue about what has been done and what has been achieved. We don’t know the impacts of a government intervention, largely because no one is really trying to find out. What would normally be the realm of conservation and government scientists appears to be an area largely devoid of action.

Indonesian science in general is not strong. A 1997 publication in the journal Scientometrics, which reports on scientific performance, analyzed the most cited publications written by scientists from 12 developing countries — Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Ivory Coast and Jamaica. It found that Indonesia, except for its relative strength in geosciences, was among the poorest scientific performers in terms of the number of cited publications.

The finding was telling. Science requires that research findings are made available to the public after a review process by other scientists. The number of scientific publications — and the frequency with which they are cited by others — are good indicators of the strength of science.

Not much appears to have changed since 1997. A recent study in Scientometrics compared Indonesian science in 14 disciplines with that in other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In terms of the total number of scientific publications between 1992 and 2008, only Vietnam performed worse than Indonesia. For comparison’s sake, in 2007 Indonesia produced about 850 scientific publications while both China and Australia each published nearly 100,000. Not surprisingly, Indonesian publications were not often cited by others.

Interestingly, where Indonesia did have a higher score — the highest, in fact — was in the percentage of publications written together with at least one international partner: about 88 percent in 2007, compared with the lowest score of about 20 percent for Vietnam. This indicates that most of the science in Indonesia is still influenced, if not driven, by foreigners.

These findings are in line with a 2010 country study by Harvard University which estimated that Indonesian scientists publish about one scientific publication in international journals per million people per year. This is 20 times less than Thailand. Among others, the study concluded that Indonesia’s weak science sector was a major impediment for its long-term development potential.

To go back to conservation science and the orangutan, this lack of input from national scientists is even more obvious.

A search in Current Contents, an international database of scientific literature, for publications that contained the keywords “Indonesia,” “orangutan” and “conservation” shows that since 1993, about 1 percent of the resulting publications were written by Indonesian scientists (as indicated by their position as first authors, who normally do most of the work in a publication).

A similar literature search for “Brazil,” “jaguar” and “conservation” indicates that about 50 percent of the publications were written by Brazilian or Argentinean researchers. Some 75 percent of the publications on “India,” “tiger” and “conservation” had a first author of Indian nationality, and about 78 percent of the publications on “China,” “panda” and “conservation” were first-authored by Chinese scientists.

The database searches only in international English-language journals, so it could be that publications in local languages are overlooked. However, an additional search in the Zoological Record database, which includes journals such as Boletim do Museu de Biologia Mello Leitao and Sichuan Journal of Zoology, gave very similar results. It might be that Indonesian publications were published in local journals not included in either of these databases, but this would suggest that these journals are relatively obscure, with the science published therein having limited impact. This is the view of Dr. Herry Purnomo, an Indonesian forest management and policy expert at the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) in Bogor, who says “most Indonesian scientists publish in national journals, which have a lower impact than international ones.”

Ramadhani Achdiawan, an Indonesian statistician also at Cifor, pointed to the problem of language. English language skills in Indonesia are weaker than in many other countries where English is an important first or second language. “Compared with India, Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia has a distinct disadvantage,” he said. “Only those who have direct links with overseas scientist or research institutions have the language skills to publish internationally.”

Ramadhani also pointed out that there is a lack of suitable, high-quality local science journals where budding scientists can learn the tricks of the trade. South American scientists have access to a great number of journals in Spanish or Portuguese. The readership among Latin American scientists is much larger than in Malaysia and Indonesia. “For some reason,” he said, “there are hardly any good Indonesian journals, and some academic results are simply published in a little newsletter without any review process.

“Hence, the quality of these articles is commonly poor and Indonesian science innovations are not effectively promoted.”

And it shows. Herry says that one of the problems is that “few policy makers use journals to guide their thinking.”

All this is worrying for Indonesian conservation. The lack of active Indonesian conservation scientists means that information is dominated by foreign scientists. But foreigners, who lack the local cultural and language skills, or the connections, can never as effectively translate research findings into locally relevant policy recommendations or media communications as local scientists.

If Indonesia wants to make wise decisions about the future of this country, especially with regard to the use and protection of its natural resources, it urgently needs more scientists to actively engage in international science by offering their views and data for scientific scrutiny.

Interestingly, there are many Indonesian scientists with international masters degrees and doctorates. Since the early 1970s, the Ketambe research project in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra alone has trained more than 100 such local scientists. What seems to be the case is that the voice of these scientists is not clearly heard.

The onus is on Indonesian scientists to participate more actively in their scientific disciplines and develop their own locally funded research programs. It is worth remembering that the first serious studies on both jaguars and pandas were spearheaded by foreign scientists, but that it since has been supplanted by high-standard research by nationals.

The onus also is on the national government to strengthen local research institutions and provide funding, for example, for follow-up research. Such funding would allow scientists to continue a research career, and thus make science an attractive career choice. Presumably such programs already exist, in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and the Ministry of National Education, and in their collaborations with overseas funding agencies. The educational programs of USAID in Indonesia alone provide some $2.5 million in grants on university partnerships. Also, NGO initiatives such as the International Indonesian Scientist Association (IIII) suggest that many Indonesian scientists think along the lines pointed out above.

With more and better scientists, Indonesia might at least be in the position to tell the president that virtually nothing has been achieved with the national orangutan action plan. But until Indonesian scientists step up to the plate, he will have to wait a little longer for that information.
By EErik Meijaard forest director for People & Nature Consulting International in Bali.

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