The National Science & Technology Commission (NSTC) is seeking to restructure government-supported research institutes (GRIs) in order to boost information exchange and convergence study by tearing down their barriers.
“Korea is on the threshold of becoming an advanced economy. Now is the time (for them) to join forces to do bigger things °™ creating new knowledge and new markets,” NSTC Chairman Kim Doh-yeon said. “I believe that research institutes should stay away from the government to some extent to ensure autonomy, and they should join forces, go bigger in size in order to not just work on convergence technology research, but also to ensure autonomy,” he said in an interview with NewsWorld.
An amendment bill that would unify most of the GRIs, except a few under direct control of each ministry, into one corporate body tentatively named the National Research and Development Institute, is pending at the National Assembly.
Korean GRIs, each with some 300 researchers, have turned out to be a mom-and-pop store in size, representing a striking contrast to Germany’s three research institutes, each employing 1,300 to 1,500 researchers, and Japan with two bodies each with some 3,000 staff members. Germany’s Max Plank Institute, for example, has about 10,000 research staff, Kim said.
Looking at the history of GRIs, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) became the first state-invested research institute established in 1966. GRIs have since mushroomed according to each disciple, and now the figure has risen to 27, which accounts for one-fourth of the government’s total R&D expenditure, which stands at 16 trillion won. Korea is the only country to operate the state-invested research institutes separately.
The days are gone when researchers have followed government officials’ instructions, said the NSTC chairman, adding that research institutes need to break the mold and mindset to cope with fast changes.
He said that the Korean version of integrating GRIs into a corporate entity is a far cry from the case of Japan, which disbanded and merged 15 GRIs into one 12 years ago.
Korean GRIs will retain their own identity and the integration is expected to have an effect of lowering partitioned walls between GRIs, thus facilitating exchanges of research personnel and information, he said.
The government itself initially did not float the idea of integrating the GRIs, but it was based on the outcomes of three government-commissioned surveys taking more than nine months to complete by three bodies, including the globally renowned consulting firm Arthur D. Little and the Civilian Committee on the Development of GRIs, headed by ex-Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman, which all agreed on the integration of the GRIs.
The rationale for reorganizing the GRIs is to necessitate active personnel exchanges and joint study so as not to fall behind the future technology paradigm. The current R&D regime has turned out to be not suitable for conducting convergence studies in a full-fledged fashion.
The government has made massive investments into promoting science & technology R&D fields with the goal of brightening the Republic of Korea’s future.
The government’s R&D budget has surged from 11 trillion won in 2008 to 16 trillion won in 2012, representing an annual R&D expenditure increase rate of about 10 percent and becoming the subject of envy from other countries. The nation has seen its science & technology expenditure soar an annual average rate of 10 percent in the world for three times over the past decade, trailing China, who has invested eight times more during the same period. In reality, Korea is the world’s second biggest R&D investor after China.
In the past, the defunct Ministry of Science and Technology, which is now integrated into the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST), was the sole government ministry charged with handling the execution of R&D expenditure. Now that the size of government R&D expenditure is so massive, the NSTC now has the mission of looking at the government R&D sector from a big-picture perspective °™ determining whether taxpayer money is being used efficiently. Thirty government ministries and administrations are now involved in their own R&D activities.
The NSTC is charged with integrating and managing R&D policies, which have been divergent among ministries and inefficient in the past, as well as coordinating and distributing R&D budgets that were set aside for specific areas, some of which overlap.
One year has passed since the NSTC was officially inaugurated on March 28, 2011 as the “planning tower” to oversee national R&D outlays.
Looking back at the achievements the NSTC has made since its inception, Chairman Kim said, “Things cannot change much in the short period of one year since research tends to consume a few years.”
First, he said, the NSTC has focused on raising government R&D outlays into SMEs in order to ramp up their competitive edge, as German counterparts play the role for their so-called “hidden champions.”
Support for nurturing SMEs is essential for creating jobs, particularly for solving the unemployment issue of youths finding it more difficult to find jobs. “We’ve raised our R&D support to SMEs this year by 14 percent over last year, and plan to continue to do so next year,” he said.
Second, the chairman said, the NSTC has focused on support for basic science study. “The Korean science and technology fields have made strides, contributing to economic development as a fast follower of advanced economies, but now is the time when the nation should invest more in promoting basic science,” Chairman Kim said.
To this end, the government last year established the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), a research institute within the Science Business Belt in Daejeon, designed to secure creative knowledge and fundamental technology for the future through world-class basic science research.
The government invested 220 billion won last year as part of the project to transform the IBS into a basic science center capable of accommodating 3,000 scientists by investing 5 trillion won over the next five years with the goal of realizing the nation’s long-cherished dream of joining the countries with Nobel laureates.
When it comes to securing original proprietary technologies, Kim stressed the Korean science and technology paradigm’s shift to basic science study. Korea has been a “fast follower” of the market trends and the nation needs to be a “first mover” in which interesting and proprietary technologies can be produced in the course of basic science study.
“The implementation of free trade agreements, including the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, is sure to be not just challenges, but also opportunities since they make markets wider,” he said.
In consideration of the unfavorable effects the implementation of the FTAs will have, he said, the NSTC will strengthen R&D support to enhance their competitiveness. The government plans to expand R&D outlays in such areas as the development of new plant seeds, plant cultivation methods, and marketing strategies in the agriculture field as well as the exploration of new drugs by Korean pharmaceutical companies in order to brace for the entry into Korea by international juggernauts with huge capital.
The domestic science & technology communities are now struggling with addressing such woes as the polarization of young, gifted manpower, particularly converging on medical and law colleges. Some college students have quit their original courses and have reentered their universities to opt for law and medical majors.
The NSTC will soon come up with a plan, dubbed “The Renaissance of the Engineering Field,” in order to attract a wealth of young talent after putting together all views from the MEST and the Ministry of Labor Affairs and other ministries.
“The scheme will cover all life stages of manpower in the engineering field ranging from their education to landing jobs to retirement so that those in the field can work with a sense of pride,” he said.
Under the plan, to be unveiled in May, the MEST will consider all options to change all stages of education, ranging from primary school and secondary school to university, as well education on mathematics and science, Kim said. For instance, the government is studying an option to inaugurate a course in the engineering college designed to imbue undergraduates with a challenging spirit, as part of efforts to help them cast off their attitude of seeking “safer lives” and instead inspire creativity.