To boost basic science in South Korea, look at values, not just budgets

When the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea faced the dual challenge of rebuilding its devastated cities and modernizing its largely agrarian economy. He bet on becoming a fast and agile developer of already profitable technologies. Industrial infrastructure – including the construction of highways and light-water nuclear reactors producing cheap electricity – led to remarkably rapid economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the late 1980s, South Korean policymakers and scientific communities hoped to transform the country from a “fast follower” imitating foreign companies to a “first mover” producing innovative and pioneering research. The Basic Science Promotion Act 1989 created mechanisms for the government to fund basic research. From 1990 to 2020, the Department of Science increased the number of basic science research centers from 13 to 122. Annual funding increased from the equivalent of US$2.2 million (in 2020 dollars) to 147 millions of dollars. Former President Moon Jae-in oversaw the doubling of basic research funding (from approximately $1.07 billion to $2.1 billion) between 2017 and 2022. Last year, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of the founding of the multi-billion dollar Institute of Basic Sciences in Daejon. Basic science should flourish, yet no Korean scientist has won a Nobel Prize.

Now is the time for South Korea to reconsider its strategies for advancing its basic science. Last month, the country inaugurated a new president, Yoon Suk-yeol. As a political scientist specializing in science policy, I have joined others in advising the new government on how to redesign its research and development funding portfolio in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chain disruption and other science-related issues. and technology.

I also gave advice on how to improve science policy and interviewed dozens of Korean scientists about their ambitions, frustrations and overall experiences. South Korea is home to many world-class innovations and scientists, especially in the fields of chemistry and materials science. But it’s not as productive in basic science as it could be. Although financial resources are sufficient, South Korea’s research evaluation, grantmaking processes, and cultural conventions do not foster innovation. Policies are more geared towards applications than discovery, favoring short-term results over bold exploration. To change that, here’s what policy makers need to keep in mind.

First, for basic scientists, it’s not just the funding that matters, but the fun — the joy of discovery. Yet South Korea’s support and evaluation structure rewards steady production, not unpredictable exploration. At almost every university in the country, scholars are assessed on the number of papers they produce during a review period. The requirements are rigid. Posts are counted and translated into numerical ratings, with some ratings required for promotion. The goal is to promote fairness and discourage favoritism, but the result is that scholars must pursue low-risk, short-term projects that can produce enough papers over the period. (Yes, other countries also have policies that discourage risky work, but South Korea’s are extreme.)

Second, it is not just the size of grants that matters for basic science, but the stability of funding. To pursue innovation, scientists need time as much as money, but most funding programs for individual researchers in South Korea only last one to three years, which is not long enough. to carry out a risky project. Over the past year, I’ve interviewed researchers about how the doubling of funding for basic research under Moon has affected them. Almost all said they felt no impact on what they could accomplish. That’s partly because reviews are annual and don’t leave time for big dreams. And even if universities wanted to move assessments around to allow for longer-term projects, the requirements are locked in by government policies that assess institutions annually and fund them through competitively awarded contracts; universities rarely have block grants or similar tools to stabilize funding for researchers. The basic scientists I spoke to overwhelmingly agree that small but stable funding would be better than larger, less stable funding.

South Korea’s research infrastructure was built to foster applied research. Many of its conventions still favor this approach, even though the funds are intended for an enterprise driven by curiosity and the search for knowledge. The existing research strategy also strongly favors small pilot projects over larger, riskier ones. It is more focused on securing returns and minimizing losses than maximizing opportunities. A few programs have been introduced to encourage high-risk, high-reward research, including several attempts to create a Korean version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; the latest plan is to launch K-DARPA in January 2023. What I see in practice, however, is little stomach for risk.

Yes, basic science is taxpayer funded, which means the research community must be accountable for how the funds are spent. There should be financial and cultural returns on all projects and over the long term. But basic science suffers if it is expected to provide clear, consistent, and predictable gains.

Doubling or even tripling basic science funding will not bring South Korea a Nobel Prize unless the inherent values ​​of basic science and the intrinsic motivations of basic science researchers are fully enshrined in policy.

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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