A recent article in Science Magazine (July 2019) described changes to Indonesian laws regulating the way that foreign scientists can do science in Indonesia. The laws are, in essence, a push back against “trickle down science“, in which scientist in Global North Institutions engage in colonial science. This is what happens when Global North researchers engage local institutions to provide service scientists and easy access to samples without any genuine consideration for their Global South collaborators.
The implications of the new law are still uncertain, but it may affect one of the studies on which I am in investigator. The change in the law means that
[Foreign scientists] need to get ethical clearance from an Indonesian review board for every study (although some types of studies may be exempted), submit primary data and published papers to the government, involve Indonesian scientists as equal partners, and share any benefits, such as the proceeds from new drugs, resulting from the study. Researchers can’t take samples or even digital information out of the country, except for tests that cannot be done in Indonesian labs, and to do so, they need a so-called material transfer agreement (MTA) using a template provided by the government. (Rochmyaningsih, 2019)
A Bajaut Laut community in Sabah, Malaysia. It was a study in a community like this one in Indonesia that sparked a debate about subaltern science.
It is hard to fault any of the new requirements. Of course there should be ethical clearance and of course the clearance should come from the country in which the science is being done. Lodging the data and the papers seems like a reasonable idea. The Indonesian governments wants papers and data lodged with the them; a bolder and more constructive approach may be for data and papers to be lodged in accessible repositories. Of course Global North researchers should have in-country scientists as partners and of course the collaborators should be equal partners — not pretend equal partners, but actual, equal partners. Of course the benefits of the science should flow to all the countries engaged in the science. These are not high hurdles to jump unless the scientists from the Global North thought they should be able to arrive, collect samples, and run … which would never happen, right?
I could have predicted the kind of response that has already begun with the announcement of the Indonesian law, because I have heard the responses before. Indonesia (or insert the name of your favourite Global South country here) doesn’t have the capacity to do the research that we want to do. It wasn’t the research idea of the scientists in Indonesia, it was our idea. These new laws will destroy science in Indonesia, because any credible Northern researchers will move to a more accommodating country; i.e., a more readily exploitable country. Every single one of these responses condemns the person who utters them, because each one shows a complete lack of commitment to genuine, scientific collaboration.
The issue of #trickledownscience seems to have come to a head in Indonesia with the publication of an article in Cell — the high impact factor (36.2) journal in experimental biology. The article, reported a study of genetic adaptations to hypoxia in the Bajau Laut people, a nomadic, sea-dwelling community in Southeast Asia. The article is fascinating and well worth a read, and the authors should be congratulated on a great piece of science! The problem is not with the findings, it is with the process of Northern Scientists going to far flung places to do their research without any genuine engagement or collaboration with local scientists. There are 17 authors listed on the paper and with only one exception they come from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US. The exception is author #15, an Indonesian who is and education researcher and has no background in genetics or cell biology, and whose contribution was to “provide logistical support”. Author #15 comes from Tompotika Luwuk Banggai University — a small, private institution in Central Sulawesi; underscoring the lack of genuine collaborative intent, Tompotika’s university ranking is 498 in Indonesia and 12,999 in the World. This is a far-cry from, to give one example, the more relevant and credible Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta.
The publication of the article received good coverage in The New York Times, and less desirable coverage in Science Magazine. The heart of the problem is revealed in a comment by Melissa Ilardo, who was the doctoral student on the study and the first author of the Cell paper. Commenting on the controversy, she said, “I did everything I could to conduct this research ethically and properly, and this is breaking my heart”. I truly feel for her. To be a young (post-)doctoral student and have to go through this kind of scrutiny would be awful. But just think about Ilardo’s idea of “doing everything” to conduct the research properly. What does it mean to conduct oneself properly when the #trickledownscience relationship is a profoundly colonial one. The study looks a lot like the modern day equivalent of the Elgin Marbles; however, instead of retrieving (stealing?) ancient artefacts, Global North reseaerchers collect biological samples.
The new Indonesian law is probably too heavy handed, but it is in the right direction. There is little doubt that there is a problem with #trickledownscience, and governments in the Global North, funders, and institutions need to push the nascent dialogue with the Global South about how appropriate, collaborative science can develop that addresses the needs of the Global South and not the whimsies of scientists in the Global North.
I predict it will be those Global North institutions that tackle this issue head-on that will be the most successful. It does require that they give up a little power to retain a little power, and it begins by negotiating genuinely, collaborative arrangements that address (1) the most pressing scientific questions in the Global South, (2) the building of capacity in the Global South, (3) sustainable funding for research in the Global South, and (4) sustainable, collaborative research relationships between the Global North and the Global South.
I was trying to imagine what the response in the US would be if a group of Indonesian, Nepali, and Tanzanian scientists arrived in the US to collect saliva samples from a Hasidic community in upstate New York or an Amish community in Pennsylvania. A young academic at a local community college would provide “logistical support” and facilitate obtaining ethical clearance from the college’s Institutional Review Board. The samples would be collected from the community and shipped back to the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta for analysis. A paper would subsequently appear in Nature detailing some interesting genetic variations associated with the communities. Would the science be celebrated in the The New York Times or would someone have a WTF moment and question how this could ever happen?
I am looking forward to that studying being done. Will NIH fund it, I wonder?