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Where Does Korea's Science R&D Stand?
Where Does Korea's Science R&D Stand?
The recent turmoil that battered South Korea's Institute for Basic Science reflects a deeper structural problem

By Jenny Lee WIRED Korea

In 1944, when the end of World War II was on the horizon, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was lost in thoughts about America’s next era. Having guided the nation through the Great Depression and the war, he wanted to plot a new path to establish and maintain true economic and strategic sovereignty. And he knew exactly what to do.

"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life," read a letter dated November 17, 1944, written to Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineer who organized the massive scientific contribution to the war efforts.

Describing the progress of science as a new American frontier that offers tremendous opportunity, Roosevelt, who have witnessed the fruits of scientific progress—the development of an atomic bomb, radar and penicillin—bringing the U.S. closer to a successful war ending, sought Bush’s recommendations on what the government can do to aid scientific research.

Shortly after the president’s death in 1945, Bush published a report entitled, “Science—the Endless Frontier,” in which he asserted that substantial and centralized government funding of scientific research was vital to achieving national health, defense and economic goals.

This report, which marks the start of modern science policy, set the U.S. on the road to scientific supremacy and brought about new industries. It also inspired other nations such as South Korea to perceive research innovation as key to prosperity for their citizens.

It was not until the 1960s that research and development went into high gear in South Korea, which had just gotten out of the Korean War. Under the authoritarian Park Chung-hee regime from 1961 to 1979, the state developed a rudimentary research capacity, establishing government-run institutions such as the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Korean Institute of Science and Technology to support the adaptation of foreign technology. It also created the country’s first technical university, the Korean Advanced Institute of Science (KAIS), which, with technology added, was later renamed KAIST.

“South Korea’s focus at the time was not so much on the development of basic scientific knowledge but rather on applied research, something that yields profit in the near future,” said Kim Woo-jae, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Cellular and Molecular Medicine Department.

Park and his successors’ continued support for applied research led to South Korea’s family-owned conglomerates, or chaebol, setting up their own applied research organizations, and by the 1980s, they became the lead actors, with the government primarily funding national research projects. Samsung, LG, Lotte and other chaebol, backed by the government, strongly invested in new heavy industries, such as petrochemicals, car manufacturing and shipbuilding, along with consumer electronics.

South Korea, the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 12th largest in the world, now positions itself as one of the most innovative countries, ranking second globally in this year's Bloomberg Innovation Index and 11th in the 2019 Global Innovation Index by Cornell University, INSEAD and the World Intellectual Property Organization. It has earned widespread recognition as a global leader in information and communication technologies.

The Nature journal, in its recently published issue of Nature Index devoted to South Korea, described that success can be attributed to the country’s focused investment in research as well as its “top-down” approach that promotes “close collaboration between government, industry and the academic community in the process of nation building.”

According to the publication, South Korea, which invests 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product in R&D activities, ranks near the top of the world in R&D spending, second only to Israel. The government’s research budget has been increasing by double digits annually, from 4 trillion won ($3.4 billion) in 2001 to 24 trillion won (($20.2 billion) this year.

While South Korea in the mid-1990s had a remarkable track record in applied science, its basic or foundational science research had not really taken off, neither receiving much attention nor funding. A consensus was reached, however, over the past decade on the need to invest in basic research, to encourage scientists for creativity and thereby continue economic growth. This emphasis on basic research culminated in the 2011 establishment of the Institute for Basic Science (IBS).

Located in Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul, IBS is a network of research centers comparable to Germany’s Max Planck Society and Japan’s RIKEN, covering areas including dark matter, nanomaterials, genome engineering and climate change. With elite scientists from at home and abroad who are given full autonomy and independence when conducting research, its goal is to “advance the frontiers of knowledge” and to “train the leading scientists of tomorrow.”

“IBS is a very aggressive step for the country to move forward and to really become an international player in certain areas of basic science,” said Andreas Heinrich, director of the Center for Quantum Nanoscience at IBS. “IBS research centers in different areas are well funded, and we have the mandate to go hire international people and go to conferences, to promote all our science internationally. So we're doing what we need to do.”

However, the organization was faced with government investigations and proposals for reform last year for alleged misconduct, including misappropriation of research funds and improper hiring. As a result, IBS’ 30 centers experienced a considerable cut in their research budgets, from roughly 10 billion won ($8.4 million) per year to 6 billion won ($5 million).

Professor Kim says the recent turmoil reflects a deeper structural problem that has to be systematically dealt with.

“The organization operates in a pyramid structure, giving too much money to just a handful of leaders,” Kim said. “This is twisted governance that invites corruption and abuse. Under such a circumstance, it would be very difficult to unleash their creative potential most effectively.” South Korea has no Nobel winners in science.

But to take basic science forward, a wide and fair distribution of research funding should be in place, the scientists say.

“If I compare myself to the other professors here in Korea that are not part of IBS then they have very little research money, and that is really a problem,” said Heinrich, who is also a professor at Ewha Womens University’s Department of Physics. “I think the government also needs to focus on supporting more basic science also at universities in order for basic science to really compete with a country like Germany."

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