[Outlook]Supporting academia

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[Outlook]Supporting academia

The former Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technology were integrated into the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. Now, there are moves to merge the Korea Research Foundation and the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation, bodies that used to be in charge of providing support for academic research in the two former ministries.

The two foundations’ main duties were to support academic research at universities. Although the programs and fields they supported were slightly different, there has been continuous controversy about the redundancy of their jobs. It looks natural, therefore, to discuss the integration of the two foundations.

However, it is regretful that the discussion is only about the agencies’ physical integration and lacks serious consideration of government support for academic research. The government’s approach to academics is very important in our efforts to go from being a newly industrialized country to an advanced one with rich knowledge and culture.

First of all, we need to ask if the Korea Research Foundation and the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation have faithfully nurtured Korean academics. Unfortunately, those doing academic research don’t give good evaluations. There must have been budget limitations but even considering that, they doubt if programs to support research were drawn in a way to efficiently help academia develop.

For instance, the bodies reduced support for small-scale individual research in which individual researchers use their creativity and imagination, but provided more support to large-scale projects which are more suitable for promotion and management.

This is definitely wrong. For the past several years, some cases even made people doubt the objectivity of the selection process for awardingresearch grants. That is, research by talented scholars that other researchers deem excellent was not selected, while projects rumored to be supported by a minister or a lawmaker were.

This is because the two foundations were under the influence of political circles. In the past, the chief director of the Korea Research Foundation was selected for political reasons. The chief director then drew up programs and evaluation systems that would please politicians. Professionalism and scholars’ talent were not considered important.

Meanwhile, in the Korea Science and Engineering Foundation, figures from the Ministry of Science and Technology were employed as foundation head. As a result, civil workers had strong influence on the foundation and objectivity and consistency were damaged. This weakened trust in scientists that was built up right after the foundation was established.

By contrast, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the foundation that is evaluated as the most successful of its kind, is run by a group of scientists. For instance, Professor Alan T. Waterman, the NSF’s first director, was employed not because he was supported by the president or by the U.S. Congress, but by other scientists. He ran the foundation according to what would benefit science, with no political strings attached. This laid the groundwork for the development of research in basic science, a resource for the country’s competitiveness.

As seen in this case, it is important to give autonomy and independence when establishing a new research foundation in Korea.

First, the status of the head of the foundation must be elevated and the head should be free from the influence of political circles and government officials. Under the current government bill, the minister for education, science and technology is to employ the chief director of the foundation. But the chief director should be employed by the president instead and a scholar who is well recognized in the academic field must be employed to elevate the agency’s status and authority.

Second, autonomy must be guaranteed so that scientists and experts can propose and carry out policy that is supportive of research. The jobs can’t be left to lawmakers or civil workers who keep changing posts every year.

Third, a measure to secure funding should be prepared. The right to ask for money from the state should be given to the foundation, just as it is to the NSF. Or, the ratio for the foundation’s operation should be increased so that the agency has more room to plan and execute its own budget.

The establishment of a new research foundation reveals the Lee Myung-bak administration’s will to foster academia.

This will be a good opportunity to show intellectuals that the government is interested in the culture and academic fields as well as pragmatic ones. The government must write a law to guarantee that the new foundation has independence and autonomy.

*The writer is a professor of physics and 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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