State support not an exact science

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State support not an exact science

Most Korean scientists do not want to work in Korea, and efforts to develop innovative scientific and technological products, upon which the country’s future depends, have hit a bottleneck, according the shocking results of an investigation conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo.

In the survey of just over 500 scientists of Korean nationality - 293 of whom live here and 226 based overseas - 72 percent of the former said they wished to leave the country in search of a better environment to carry out their research and laboratory work. Of the scientists based overseas, 66 percent said they hoped to return home, but could not because of the low salaries and poor research environment. Many are frustrated by all the bureaucracy and interference they have to deal with, including excessive regulations and auditing on project finances and employers’ preference for short-term or contract workers.

According to the National Science and Technology Commission, Korea ranks fifth globally in terms of its spending on R&D, with 16 trillion won ($14.3 billion) pledged this year. Yet it has ranked a lowly 30th for the last four years in the science citation index, which measures how often local researchers have their works printed or cited.

Korea has become a world leader in mobile phones, automobiles and shipbuilding due to its technology edge, but in lieu of a sweeping overhaul in science and engineering research, we cannot expect to continue this level of prosperity.

The government should first of all change its mind-set. Scientific research does not have to yield results immediately. Rather, time and patience are needed. Technocrats in charge of supervising and supporting innovative research should be nurtured and dispatched to campus labs so the government knows exactly what and how to assist scientists and engineers.

Moreover, R&D activities should be granted more independence so scientists can experiment freely with innovative ideas, with the red tape passed on to technocrats to take care of.

There should be no frontiers in science and technology. We should revise the immigration law so that overseas talent can come here and make useful contributions. The U.S. and other advanced countries attract talent from developing countries with scholarships and research subsidies. Additionally, many scientists and research engineers fret about job insecurity, so it would behoove the government to devise a clearer science and technology policy for both their and the country’s future. The presidential candidates should make this a priority.

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