Nicholas J. Long
Pak Iwan was one of my oldest friends in Indonesia. A politics lecturer in a small, private higher education institution in the Riau Islands, I had first met him as a PhD student. We had since shared many good times, from long chats about politics, religion, and the self, to a handbag hunt when he came to London and wanted to buy gifts for his wife. He had been my counterpart during my postdoctoral research, a collaboration that had seen me delivering guest lectures, graduation speeches, running-capacity building workshops and even launching my book. For me, it was a no-brainer that, when I returned to Indonesia, I would once again team up with Pak Iwan in order to build on those existing links and relationships. But as I have since discovered, Indonesia’s latest arrangements for foreign researchers are putting relations with counterparts under novel forms of pressure – straining them, and sometimes altering them altogether.
A new agency
As Indonesia began to re-open its borders following the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign researchers were met with dramatic news. RISTEK, the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, which had been handling our research permit applications for the past 15 years, would no longer do so. It had been dissolved. We would now have to work with a new agency, with its own set of rules: the National Research and Innovation Agency, a.k.a BRIN.
The shift from RISTEK to BRIN has led to immense anxiety amongst many researchers. Indonesian bureaucracy does not have a reputation for being user-friendly, and punitive laws threatening researchers with fines, jail, or blacklisting mean the stakes of getting the new research permit process right have never felt higher. An ever-evolving website, and baldly stated requirements (such as needing to deposit data in a national archive, with little consideration as to how that process might be more complex for social scientists than natural scientists) added to the sense of panic.
Most of these fears have – so far – proven unfounded, with BRIN taking a sensible approach to the ethical nuances of individual projects. Indeed, a key difference in the approaches taken by the two agencies is that BRIN approves projects on the basis of ethical review, while RISTEK subjected applications to ‘scientific’ review. The difference is important because it gives BRIN much less scope to interfere with the details of project design than had been the case under RISTEK.
I have felt the benefits of this change myself. My current research on Indonesia’s hypnosis circuit was originally planned for 2020, and I initially pitched the project to RISTEK. I had chosen to keep Pak Iwan as my counterpart, building on the collaborative relationship we had established during my postdoc. There were plenty of good reasons to keep working with him. He was local to my main field site and could facilitate access to key respondents. His expertise in Indonesian politics and state bureaucracy could help me better understand how hypnotherapy was being regulated, offering the possibility of interdisciplinary collaborations that could offer policy recommendations. And I was keen to keep collaborating with a partner in the Riau Islands, a province where research culture and higher education are both relatively undeveloped. I knew I could make a bigger difference in terms of capacity building than if I partnered with an already well-established university elsewhere in the country. I explained all of this in my research proposal. But RISTEK objected on ‘scientific’ grounds. Because Pak Iwan was not an anthropologist, he was not a good fit for my project. An alternative – or additional – counterpart was required. They even proposed that I partner with a well-known university in a city unconnected to my research. When I tried to object to this unwelcome imposition, suggesting we add a sociology lecturer at Pak Iwan’s institution who had a background in anthropology, RISTEK simply did not respond.
By contrast, there were no such attempts to interfere with the content or personnel of my research project when I presented my proposal to BRIN. Of course, the process could have been more complicated had the review committee deemed aspects of my research unethical. I was lucky, perhaps, that my project did not involve research on topics or with groups that BRIN flags as ‘very sensitive’ (including, troublingly, LGBT+ individuals). Yet BRIN have emphasised that their goal is to try and help researchers do the research they want to, and it seems only fair to take them at their word until there is evidence to suggest otherwise.
BRIN’s more facilitative, hands-off, approach is broadly a good thing. In particular, it gives Indonesian researchers added confidence that they can build partnerships with foreign researchers and not find their plans are then thwarted by their own national research agency. But perhaps BRIN is a little too hands-off, leading to new challenges for Indonesian researchers and the foreigners collaborating with them.
Indonesian counterparts are now directly responsible for several key aspects of the application process previously handled by RISTEK or the foreign researcher. This can place strain on the collaborative relationship – especially if things do not proceed in the way, or at the pace, that the foreign researcher wants or needs. Most significantly, it is the now the counterpart who must apply for the foreign researcher’s C315 visa. For universities that regularly host overseas Indonesian-language learners and exchange students and which have well-developed International Offices, this is fairly straightforward. But smaller universities in out-of-the-way places may be shooting in the dark. Pak Iwan’s university, for instance, has no International Office. It had never sponsored an overseas visitor before. It wasn’t even registered to be a visa sponsor. Getting onto the system turned out to be a convoluted process, leading to a delay of over four months. The situation was so bad that Pak Iwan abandoned his plans to sponsor his Malaysian PhD supervisor. He redirected the supervisor to a different university in another province. Many foreign academics will doubtless make similar judgements, preferring to partner with tried and tested institutions rather face the risk of delays. The benefits of international collaborations are thus disproportionately likely to accrue to universities that have already received such benefits in the past. Other institutions will lose out.
Economy of favours
As well as handling the visa, counterparts must now give more support to foreign researchers throughout the application process than was the case under RISTEK. They might have to pay for the researcher’s visa and permit, help translate the proposal into Indonesian (I was allowed to submit mine in English), and must shepherd the researcher through the arrivals process. Even with simple matters, such as how to attach an ‘e-materai’ to my research permit letter, BRIN advised me to seek assistance from my counterpart rather than explaining the process themselves.
With all this help being given for free, counterparts might reasonably feel they are owed something in return. There are many favours that Indonesian academic might ask of a visiting colleague, but which do not strictly relate to the work that person is in Indonesia to do. And while it is good to be generous and support one’s in-country host, the way the research permit application process is embedded in an economy of favours makes it harder than ever for us to say no. There is not just a moral force at play here: as visa sponsor, the counterpart wields considerable structural power over the researcher, especially if the visa needs to be extended.
With no guidelines on what is reasonable for counterparts to expect from foreign researchers, and no clear process for changing counterpart mid-project if the relationship breaks down, the relationship becomes a new potential pain point. As with the issue of experience in dealing with immigration, it is easy to see how researchers could flock to counterparts with a track record of treating their visitors well – rather than taking the risk of working with a less well-known figure who might be a better fit in terms of research expertise.
One of the most important recent changes to the counterpart relationship has come from the requirement that foreign researchers will co-author at least some publications with their Indonesian sponsor. This pre-dates BRIN – my application to RISTEK in 2019 also required a ‘statement letter regarding joint publication of results’, although this was not asked for during any of my previous research permit applications. BRIN have nevertheless upheld the requirement, whilst leaving it to individual researchers and their counterparts to negotiate what such co-authorship would actually look like. The issue is complex because different disciplines and research projects have different practices of data collection and analysis, and journals have different criteria for determining who can claim to be an ‘author’. Blanket guidelines are thus not possible. Yet this very openness creates possibilities for misunderstanding and disappointment.
Early in 2023, I was invited to a meeting in which a university expressed an interest in becoming my counterpart. The deal on offer was that their staff would accompany me on my fieldwork (presumably helping with aspects of data collection, although this was not completely clear). I would then write up the results, and submit the papers to Scopus-indexed journals with my Indonesian colleagues as first authors. This frankly unethical request speaks volumes about the miserable working conditions faced by many Indonesian academics. When one’s prospects of promotion and departmental accreditation hinge on narrow publication performance metrics, a foreign researcher who is plugged into international debates and fluent in academic English seems a valuable resource to try and secure. In their desperation to get ahead, this university made the mistake of asking for too much. Why would I agree to such an arrangement when I could keep working with Pak Iwan, who gives me the freedom to author most pieces myself, but with whom I will hopefully publish several pieces on selected topics of mutual interest? Of course, I am lucky to already have a counterpart relationship that works for me.
Novice researchers and those who have not thought carefully about the terms and conditions of their MoU risk having their fingers burned. In practice, it seems likely that foreign researchers will gravitate towards institutions and individuals are already known to be flexible and reasonable – who will in-turn reap the benefits of co-authorship. Universities with which there is no established working relationship risk losing out, and Indonesians wishing to work with a foreign researcher will find themselves having to renounce their own ambitions in order to work on the foreigner’s preferred terms.
Hope for the future?
There is much to like about the emphasis on ethics, autonomy, and decentralisation underpinning the new procedures for foreign researchers working in Indonesia. Yet there is a real danger that these regulations might encourage unethical behaviours within collaborative relationships and on the matter of authorship. There is also the risk of access to foreign research collaborations becoming centralised in the hands of a few elite institutions and super-counterparts with a tried and trusted track record.
Responsibility for avoiding that outcome lies with all parties involved. Indonesian institutions need to ensure they have mastered the research permit and visa application process, so they can provide speedy assistance as and when required. BRIN have much to do. They must explain the application process clearly to prospective counterparts, and might even consider taking on some of the administrative burden themselves, just as RISTEK used to. Codes of best practice for counterparts should be drawn up, offering advice on how to develop effective MoUs. Clear channels for complaints and change of counterparts should also be established in the interests of safeguarding and accountability. Meanwhile, foreign researchers need to think carefully about the broader politics of knowledge that surround their collaborations. It might sometimes be better to take the road less travelled rather than pursue the line of least resistance. And we need to think carefully about whether the various (and varied) needs of our Indonesian colleagues are being properly met within the terms of our MoUs, even as we ask them to devote time and labour to meeting our own.
Nicholas J. Long (N.J.Long@lse.ac.uk) is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.