In Search of Better Research Infrastructure

In the last few months, we have been reading news of the invention of Dr. Warsito Purwo Taruno, Electro-Capacitive Cancer Therapy (ECCT), and the response of the government to the matter. A recipient of the BJ Habibie Award 2015, Warsito claims his invention helps to cure cancer patients.

Regardless of the validity of the claims, the brouhaha around the closing of his clinics and the lengthy registration and licensing processes is interesting.

The facts may lead to a belief that the government of Indonesia is not ready to accommodate or commercialize inventions.

This is unfortunate.

We are now living in a changing global economy where knowledge and intellectual capital are more valued than other resources.

Yet research infrastructure in Indonesia seems scattered and overlapping. For example, what is the specific role of scientific research in universities nowadays? Are they responsible for producing basic research or applied research? And what is the role of government research institutions (such as LIPI and the BPPT)? Who can help commercialize an invention?

Similarly, what is the role of research units in many government institutions and ministries?

Are they still relevant to help Indonesia become competitive in the world?

These unanswered questions reflect the fact that we may not be fully ready to compete in the global knowledge economy.

In a developed country, such as Australia, for example, sophisticated research infrastructure is well established to ensure the competitiveness of the nation. Structured efforts are made to ensure that they can take part and engage in the global knowledge economy.

Universities need to have a clear research function to support the national research strategy.

During a two-day workshop aiming to introduce research students from Indonesia to various aspects of research in Australia, it was shown that the commonwealth country has developed a robust scheme to support research infrastructure, processes and outputs.

A program of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), RIRI (Research Investment of the Republic of Indonesia) workshop in Canberra revealed that Australia had a strong research strategy that focuses on several priority and strategic issues.

The National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) reflects the intention of the Australian government to focus on transforming ideas into successful products.

To further implement this strategy, research institutions are expected to be innovative: in a brave move to be more relevant in the global knowledge economy, the largest and oldest government research institution has changed the measurement of its organizational output from journal papers to customer satisfaction.

Following this transformation, ithas also adopted a “venture capital” model providing equity capital to inventors to help them to commercialize their products.

In fact, the Australian government is not afraid to appoint venture capitalists as CEOs of research institutions.

It realizes that it is not enough to just produce high-quality papers; research institutions need to be relevant to the rapidly changing global knowledge economy.

Now, what can we learn from this?

There are at least three immediate issues that we need to address. First, we need a national-level research strategy in Indonesia. The Research and Technology and Higher Education Ministry needs to come up with a robust, overarching research strategy that will provide a clear direction on where all research investment should be allocated.

This research strategy should clearly outline what is expected from research institutions and how it will increase our competitiveness in the global knowledge economy.

Second, to implement this strategy, Indonesia needs to have a clearer division of labor and closer collaboration between government and private research institutions and universities.

We cannot afford to work in silos. Universities need to have a clear research function to support the national research strategy and research institutions need to have clear research outputs, i.e. reliable products.

Third, given funding limitations, research institutions need to be able to tap new emerging opportunities arising from intellectual property rights and technological innovation.

Further, following the Australian example, research institutions in Indonesia need to be more entrepreneurial and explorative in the ways in which they find new sources of funding.

Experimenting with the “venture capital” model may be worthwhile. Crowd funding may also be beneficial.

Alas, the struggle of Warsito may continue for now. However, this experience should wake the government up to the need to nurture new inventors and help inventors to commercialize or make their inventions relevant to society and the global knowledge economy.

The writer, a faculty member of the Binus University Business School in Jakarta, is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship for his research into business models of social enterprises. He is studying for his PhD at the QUT Business School, Queensland University of Technology, Australia.