[Outlook]A high-tech solution

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[Outlook]A high-tech solution

On Feb. 5, 16 science and technology organizations released a joint statement protesting a plan to shut down the Ministry of Science and Technology. The organizations include the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies, the Korean Academy of Science and Technology, the Academy of Engineering of Korea and the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Societies.
The event didn’t draw much attention as it occurred shortly before the Lunar New Year holiday. But it was still unusual for science and technology organizations to say publicly that they wouldn’t sit still if the Ministry of Science and Technology is shut down. In the statement, they said that the Ministry of Education is struggling with many problems, such as English education and law schools, so if the Ministry of Science and Technology is merged with the Ministry of Education, no minister would make science and technology a priority.
They also maintained that we need an independent ministry for science and technology in order to boost the nation’s competitiveness in the sciences and make efficient use of the national budget for science and technology, which is one-seventh of Japan’s and one-twentieth that of the United States.
There is no one answer for how the government offices should be organized. Some countries have independent government offices for science and technology, and in others the department of science and technology is run with the department for education.
In most cases, it is more efficient to have separate government offices for science and technology in the early phase of economic development because acquiring technology is a major goal at that time. When the economy develops and training people becomes more important, as in England and Germany, it seems more efficient to combine the offices for higher education and science and technology.
Korea is in between the two phases, so its path is not so clear-cut. The new administration declared its intention to make government smaller and to reduce the number of large ministries. So the transition team came down in favor of merging the education ministry with the science and technology ministry.
We need to think about why people in science and technology circles are raising their voices even though they understand this. First, issues in the education of teenagers, such as private tutoring, are so urgent that the government cannot afford to make time for science and technology. Scientists are worried that people don’t feel that science and technology issues are as urgent. If education for elementary, middle and high schools is separated from secondary education, as is done in England, this problem might be solved. In this regard, the new administration’s plan for restructuring seems to solve only half the problem.
The second reason scientists are concerned is the personnel on the presidential cabinet and in the Blue House. The Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications are to be merged with other ministries. Both of the affected ministers have been influential figures in science and engineering circles. Thus, when these ministries are merged with the Ministry of Education, opinions from science and engineering circles might not be reflected in state affairs.
Of course, figures in science and engineering can be appointed as ministers of the larger ministries. But in principle, when appointing a minister it is more important to choose someone competent in resolving that ministry’s most urgent issues, rather than having a quota from each sector.
Third, people in science and technology circles worry about the efficient allocation of government research and development projects. Government research and development projects are so huge that the budget is more than 10 trillion won ($11 billion), and some 10 government offices take part.
To carry out those projects without redundancy, administrative me-diation between different ministries is needed. Until now, the deputy prime minister for science and technology has assumed this duty, but it is uncertain how this task will be done in the new administration.
The new government should try to address the concerns of scientists even if it wants to have a small and efficient government. Some suggest that a presidential aide for science and technology could be appointed in the presidential office. If such a position is created, the science and technology aide will allot science and technology funds and take charge of long-term national research and development plans. This would satisfy those in science and technology and avoid having a large administrative body.
This suggestion is worth serious consideration.

*The writer is the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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