Kelimutu Colored Lakes

Kelimutu Colored Lakes (Credit:

Indonesia is not an easy country to govern.

It is comprised of nearly 14,000 islands with over 360 ethnic groups speaking 719 languages and encompassing a wide range of cultures from rural hunter-gatherers to urban elites. It stretches over 5,000km from Sumatra, northwest of Malaysia and Singapore, to the Papua New Guinean border and includes 7 major biogeographic regions.

When its first President Sukarno declared independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945, he declared that ‘matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.’ As foreign correspondent Elizabeth Pisani points out in her recent book, Indonesia etc, the country has been working out the details of that ‘etc’ ever since.

Yet one thing Indonesia is not short of is potential, as a recently published country study points out. The study, published by an international consortium of partners including the Royal Society, is part of a wider project examining the current status and future prospects of science in the Islamic world.

Indonesia country study report cover

Indonesia country study

Led by Priya Shetty, a global health journalist, the study highlights a number of advantages in Indonesia’s favour, including an ambitious science and technology vision; increasing economic strength (it is Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and is regularly cited as one of the next up and coming economies, being a member of such various acronymic groupings as the MINTs and the CIVETS);  a huge and growing population (including the world’s largest Muslim population); investment in education; and a comparatively good record for the region on gender equality in science and technology.

The US is also taking an increasing interest in the land where President Obama spent much of his childhood, having sent Professor Bruce Alberts, a renowned biochemist, former Editor-in-Chief of Science, and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society, to the country as a US science envoy to promote bilateral cooperation.

Despite these strengths and its incredible biological, geographical and geological diversity, Indonesia is not an easy place to be a scientist. Indonesian scientists themselves are often underpaid and have to take on extra work to supplement their incomes. An overseas researcher wishing to study the country’s remarkable flora and fauna has to navigate a bureaucratic minefield, requiring several different permits and reporting to a number of government agencies, including the police, Home Affairs Department, the Immigration Office, and various provincial equivalents.

It remains to be seen to what extent the recent election of President-elect Joko Widodo, a former furniture maker who has promised a focus on technology, and who is not part of the traditional Indonesian ruling elite, will make a difference to Indonesian science.

However, the UK’s interaction with Indonesia is set to increase, as one of the key partner countries under the Newton Fund, a Government initiative to promote science and innovation partnerships between the UK and key developing countries. (The Royal Society is offering Mobility Grants and Advanced Fellowships to five other countries through the Fund).

The publication of the Indonesia report marks the latest country case study published as part of the Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation project. The project will conclude with a final report on science and innovation across the 57 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member countries to be published later this year.