This week Indonesian scientists met with American counterparts in Jakarta to trade ideas and seek support for projects such as plastic made from local plants, new fuel cells and heartier varieties of rice.
Yessi Permana and Marsia Gustiananda research two very different topics - one biodegradable plastic, the other infectious diseases. But both are driven by a desire to see their country prosper from domestically developed technology.
The researchers were participants at the KAVLI Frontiers of Science Symposium outside Jakarta - one of a series of conferences partly sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that bring together researchers from around the world to discuss advances and opportunities in their fields.
From bean to plastic
Permana is working to create a more environmentally-friendly plastic from the castor oil bean. His bigger goal is to find more industrial uses for the vast number of tropical plants that thrive in Indonesia. Creating plastic from plants will help the country manage its waste disposal problems.
“My focus is on utilizing Indonesian potential," Yessi said. "The biomass is so abundantly available here. My motivation is doing this so I can say to the foreign companies, you want to come to my country do not export the raw materials, buy the end products.”
Although many companies now create plastic from renewable resources to avoid the use of chemical fuel, Permana says his research is unique because it uses non-edible materials that will not clog landfills.
Reworking the system
Permana worked in Japan after receiving his doctorate from the University of Tokyo, but says he was disappointed when he realized how international manufacturing supply chains frequently work.
The problem, as he saw it, was that raw materials brought from Indonesia were being converted into end products in Japan and then resold to the Indonesian market at a higher price.
The 36-year-old scientist says he decided to leave Japan and return to Indonesia after a realization he made while changing diapers.
“Since I have to change diapers at home, I saw wet tissues needed for baby and baby oil products and I can see the components on it consisted of the hydrogenated castor oil," Permana said. "The problem is they bought that not from an Indonesian company, they bought that from a Japanese company as an end product. And we just gave them the bean, the raw material."
Vaccines derived from genetic analysis
Marsia Gustiananda was also inspired by an ordinary event when she was living in the Netherlands and watched her son receive vaccinations that provide crucial protection against life-threatening diseases.
“This is something that really affects us, so it has a very broad social impact if you discover a vaccine that will work and prevent people from getting sick,” Gustiananda said.
Gustiananda is now a researcher at the Eijkman Institute, where she is using a new branch of genetic analysis called immunoinformatics to develop vaccines for influenza using computer models.
Indonesia’s health policies drew criticism from the international community in early 2007 when former Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari stopped sharing bird flu samples with the World Health Organization. She said the move was motivated by fears that pharmaceutical companies in the West would use viruses from Indonesia to make vaccines that were too expensive for developing countries.
Gustiananda, who calls Indonesia a “hypermarket” for infectious diseases, says research on disease should not spark protectionism.
“Influenza is a pathogen that can spread all over the world very quickly, so I think it is very important for many nations to really work together to tackle this problem,” Gustiananda said.
Other Indonesia scientists at the conference are pursuing green technologies by researching renewable energy and exploiting local materials. One project is trying to use zirconia, a tin byproduct, to create solid oxide fuel cells. That technology is currently used to power highly efficient cell phone antennas that can be scaled for use in rural communities. Another project was aimed at creating a new strain of rice that will better adapt to weather pattern transformations brought on by climate change.
Several participants urged the Indonesian government to encourage more such projects through greater funding for scientific research and development.