Discourse: Scientific progress needs public, private push

Jakarta Post
February 13, 2017


Nobel laureates in a variety of science fields recently gathered in Jakarta as part of the International Peace Foundation's "Bridges" event, engaging local minds in "Dialogues toward a culture of peace." In a country that has been struggling with scientific research and development, scientists Sir Richard J. Roberts and Sheldon L. Glashow spoke about the importance of research funding, fostering interest in the sciences and boosting relevant industries in Indonesia with The Jakarta Post's Tama Salim and Liza Yosephine. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Question (Q): As a developing country Indonesia is falling behind in scientific progress. Is there any way for us to catch up scientifically - is there a shortcut? And how important is catching up?

Robert (R): Well, I mean, let me start off at least. So, one of the things that's happening in the developing world is the adoption of smart phones.

Cellphones, sort of went, people went from having no phones to having cell phones and they didn't bother with a land line and everything that went in between. And I think this was very smart. [...] And so, I think, yes, you can often skip areas of development that have taken place.

But what this means is, you have to be aware of what is going on in the rest of the world. And again this is why the internet can help. And I think the internet has been incredibly valuable.

Glashow (G): In Africa, this took some positive action by certain national governments because they had to, the stations had to be built, the towers had to be built.

They're not very expensive, as things go. Had that not been done, this explosion could not have taken place. So there is an infrastructure issue in this regard.

Q: Most of our state funds are allocated for infrastructure projects because we are still building our nation. So how can we legitimize the need for new technologies in other sectors?

R: One thing I don't have a good feel for is to what extent the government encourages entrepreneurs, helps entrepreneurs to get started and develop new industries. So this is something that the governments can do very well if they choose to do so.

One of the things is to make sure there are small amounts of funds available to get entrepreneurs started. Often they don't need very much.

G: There are also various international NGOs that can be helpful. But they only can be helpful with the cooperation of the government.

R: Because it's the legislation that is necessary. And the other question is; do you overregulate?

One of the problems with GMOs [genetically modified organisms] is that because of the activists that have been against GMOs, there are just horrendous regulations in place. And so the small farmer, or the small researcher who might develop a new crop, it can cost so much to bring it to market that it will never get developed.

Again, this is an area where I think governments can play a huge role in limiting the amount of regulation that is necessary to bring your crops into being. [...]

Entrepreneurs work best when there are very few regulations, and the real entrepreneurs are the ones working in an area where there are no regulations whatsoever to start of with.

It's only after the entrepreneurs have shown what can be done, that all of a sudden the government decides they've got to start regulating them.

So, the government is able to play a really significant role if it chooses to. [As] Shelly says, there are international funding agencies and NGOs, places that will be glad to help.