A new law's definitions are unclear, says Dutch conservationist Erik Meijaard (left), seen here with Nardiyono, conservation manager at palm oil company ANJ Agri (right).

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Indonesia’s strict new biopiracy rules could stifle international research

Indonesia's rich biodiversity and complex geology have lured scientists from abroad for centuries. But a law adopted on 16 July by Indonesia's parliament may convince some to go elsewhere. The legislation includes strict requirements on foreign scientists doing research in Indonesia, including the need to recruit local collaborators and a near-ban on exporting specimens, along with stiff sanctions, including jail time, for violators.

Muhammad Dimyati, director-general of research development at Indonesia's Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education (commonly known as RISTEK) in Jakarta, says the law is needed to protect Indonesia's natural resources and develop the country's research enterprise. But some Indonesian scientists fear the consequences. "Our international collaborations will be stifled," says Berry Juliandi, a biologist at Bogor Agricultural University and secretary of the Indonesian Young Academy of Science. Indeed, marine biologist Philippe Borsa of the French Research Institute for Development in Montpellier says the law—and an increasingly unfriendly climate for foreign researchers—is a reason for him not to return to Indonesia, where he has studied the phylogeography of stingrays.

The new law also establishes the National Research Agency, a giant new institution that may subsume most government research centers, including the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Jakarta. Details still need to be fleshed out, but some scientists worry the new agency will concentrate too much power in a few hands. The law's most contentious provisions, however, are those that apply to foreign researchers.

From now on, their research has to be "beneficial for Indonesia." They 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.

In most cases, violators will lose their research permit, but some offenses carry steeper penalties. Scientists who fail to obtain a proper permit will be blacklisted for 5 years; repeat offenders risk a $290,000 fine. Failure to comply with the MTA requirements is punishable by 2 years in prison or a $145,000 fine. Yet foreign scientists shouldn't be afraid, says Laksana Tri Handoko, a physicist who heads LIPI and was involved in drafting the law. "You just have to report what you are going to do and what you find," he says. "It's standard practice in science." Other countries have similarly strict rules, Dimyati adds.

Indonesia has become increasingly concerned about biopiracy. Last year, for instance, a dispute erupted over a genetic study of Sulawesi's "sea nomads"—an indigenous fishing group that appears to have evolved bigger spleens to store oxygenated blood during long dives. Indonesian researchers called it an example of Western "helicopter science."

A 2017 document introducing the new law, signed by RISTEK Minister Mohamad Nasir, singled out another alleged example: the discovery of Megalara garuda, a giant venomous wasp, on Sulawesi, published in 2012 by entomologist Lynn Kimsey of the University of California (UC), Davis, along with a German researcher who found the same insect in a Berlin collection. LIPI entomologist Rosichon Ubaidillah tells Science that he and a junior colleague collected the wasps and that he suggested the name garuda—a mythical bird and national symbol of Indonesia—during a visit to UC Davis. But neither of them was a co-author on the paper; Ubaidillah was mentioned in an acknowledgment, his colleague not at all. Kimsey violated a memorandum of understanding between LIPI and UC Davis, he adds. LIPI, enraged, asked Kimsey to return the wasps she took home.

Kimsey tells Science she didn't include Ubaidillah as an author because she thought he had worked on a very different insect. "This was a bad oversight," she concedes, "and I am afraid that I hurt him badly." In late 2012, UC Davis paid LIPI $25,000 in compensation, says Ubaidillah, and returned the holotype—the specimen on which the species was formally described—to Indonesia; one M. garuda specimen remains in UC Davis's Bohart Museum of Entomology. The new law will prevent such cases in the future, Dimyati says, and ensure compliance with the Convention on Biological Diversity, which contains provisions to stop biopiracy.

RISTEK will keep supporting international collaborations, Dimyati emphasizes; the ministry is funding biodiversity research in partnership with U.S. and U.K. agencies, for instance. But Borsa says Indonesia's paperwork was already "costly and tedious." He says he has, on occasion, paid "extra costs" to officials to salvage an oceanographic expedition that was held up. Now, Indonesia is "one of the most difficult countries to do research," he says.

Borsa in part blames "misplaced nationalism"; President Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which has a strong nationalist streak, played a major role in deliberations over the bill. He also worries the government's own political interests may affect the way it implements the law. (Several foreign scientists who asked not to be named told Science that the Indonesian government has, at times, signaled its displeasure with studies that didn't support its policies or reflected badly on Indonesia, or sought to influence study designs.)

The law's unclear definitions are another problem, says Erik Meijaard, a Dutch conservationist based in Brunei. "What does ‘doing research’ mean?" asks Meijaard, who doesn't conduct on-the-ground research in Indonesia but provides scientific advice and works with Indonesian scientists. Nor it is clear what "beneficial" research is, he says: "How would I know that the outcome will be positive or negative before I start the research?"

Juliandi lobbied hard against the law over the past year; now that it has passed, he will try to ensure it is implemented without corruption or overly complex bureaucracy, he says. But he, too, fears a chilling effect. When he recently met with U.S. and U.K. scientists to discuss collaborative biodiversity studies, "They all asked me to guide them, and to be careful of the paperwork," he says. "They say they don't want to get arrested."