Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently picked his cabinet ministers. They will be expected to drive policy-making and implementation in the next five years to tackle the complex problems affecting the nation of more than a quarter-billion people.
Policy-making sounds like a big word, and it is. Government policies determine how they deliver their programs and services that affect everyday lives.
And Indonesia needs good policies. It’s at a critical juncture.
Until 2030, Indonesia will have more people of productive age than children and older people. But, without good policies, the country might miss this window of opportunity. It might turn old before it becomes rich.
To succeed in delivering programs that help eliminate poverty, ensure people are fed nutritious food, have quality education, are resilient to natural disasters and respectful of diversity, among others, the government must base policies on academically sound evidence.
But our study, Doing Research Assessment, shows Indonesian policy-making is predominantly informed by research with poor theoretical engagement, with no strong tradition of peer review and with legal threats to academic freedom.
Connection between research and policymaking
In the study, we implemented a three-step methodology. First, we did an overall assessment of the economic, political, historical and regional context. Second, we mapped national research actors. Finally, we surveyed 102 respondents: researchers (33.3 percent), research administrators (39.3 percent) and policymakers (27.4 percent).
The respondents represent organisations that produce or use social sciences. They come from government and funding organisations, civil society organisations, higher education institutions, and private think tanks.
Our study shows that there is a good connection between people and institutions in the social research sector with policymakers.
A majority of researchers (66.7 percent) have received government requests for expert advice on the social aspects of policy development. Significantly, a majority of research organisation (68.3 percent) have worked on research commissioned directly by the government. And 93.5 percent of researchers have been a member of a policy advisory board at a central level over the last three years.
The majority of policy-makers (92.9 percent) also claim that they benefit from research products such as scientific papers, working papers, presentation slides and position papers.
But this connection between the social research sector and policymakers is not accompanied by high-quality and academically rigorous research through peer review and academic collaboration.
Some 76.5 percent of researchers received less than two weeks of capacity building, such as research-related and publication training, in the past three years. Some 43.8 percent have not published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and 57.6 percent are not members of a professional research network.
Moreover, 60.6 percent collaborated in their research with individuals outside their home institution less than four times, while 61.5 percent of organisations have not hosted public debates related to research. It takes more intensive and frequent meetings and collaborations to build academic rigor and excellence.
The questionable link between social science research and policy-making exists in a research ecosystem with low government support.
The Indonesian government does not spend enough on basic research. As a result, universities take on commissioned research to generate income.
The government spends around 0.2 percent of its GDP on research, 10 times lower than other countries in the region. Even though it increased from 0.09 percent in 2013 to 0.25 percent of GDP in 2016, it is still well below Singapore (2.2 percent of GDP), Malaysia (1.3 percent), Thailand (0.6 percent) and even Vietnam (0.4 percent).
Independent research in democracy
In Indonesia, there is little room for progressive and critical academic discourses to exist, which is a pre-requisite for the use of evidence in policy-making.
Social sciences have experienced a long history of repression in Indonesia and have often been used as a tool to serve the interests of the elite.
In the 18th century, the Dutch colonial government controlled science and research development by employing scholars and scientists as full-time bureaucrats.
From 1962 to 1998, the authoritarian New Order administration used social sciences to justify state policies.
While direct government control over social research has lessened following the fall of the New Order, other imperatives are at work in limiting the kinds of social issues that can be researched.
Since the mid-2000s, social research themes have been submitted to the demands of the market. As they have become income sources for private and state universities, research is dictated by what can be sold to the political, the private, the government, or the donor markets.
Ensuring the academic freedom of social scientists means they can both strengthen and question government policies via criticism
But about 48.3 percent of our respondents experience undue influence from policymakers while doing their research. For example, many academic discussions has been disbanded, much of them after 2018, before the election year.
In 2019, survey data have also been used to justify the electability of political candidates. Different election polling agencies can produce starkly different numbers – one camp declared it was leading by 8 to 9 points, while the other claimed it had won 62 percent of the vote.
This demonstrates how “evidence” can be tailored for political purposes.
The appointment of former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, an ex-military general accused of human rights abuse, as Jokowi’s defense minister also shows the competition between presidential candidates was less a reflection of a thriving democracy and more of an oligarchic consolidation.
In Indonesia, without proof that academic rigor is present, any claim of evidence-based policy-making must be treated with caution.
This superficial connection puts good policy-making at risk. Despite researchers bringing “evidence”, they are vulnerable to becoming stamps to legitimize policies without properly assessing their value and impact.
Only by ensuring that academic rigor is present, and the independence of social scientists is non-negotiable, can we hope for a meaningful connection between academics and policymakers.
Without this, the poor imagination of Indonesian social scientists and their low presence in international academic and public debates on the global future of democracy will keep them as instruments for elite interests.