Before post-silicon, plenty of hurdles

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Before post-silicon, plenty of hurdles

The nation’s chipmakers and researchers are racing to prepare for the post-silicon era, but there are plenty of hurdles left to jump.

One is a rapidly shrinking educated work force in the field. Even at the nation’s top public semiconductor research center, the Seoul National University Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center, only 10 out of 44 affiliated professors are conducting research devoted specifically to semiconductors. All of the semiconductor-focused professors are over 50 years old.

Government funding for the sector is also declining. According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy last month, the government’s budget for semiconductor research and development has been cut by a third since 2012, from 98.67 billion won ($84.79 million) to 35.6 billion won this year.

Improving cooperation between universities, governments and companies also needs to happen. Companies by nature are more focused on developing their manufacturing capabilities, so academics and government researchers need to assume the responsibility of developing new ideas and technologies.

One successful role model could be the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) in the United States. The SRC was first established in 1982 by the U.S. government and 15 companies in the country, who contributed a total $100 million each year. The center has been running successfully for over 30 years.

Korea does have an ongoing project to develop future semiconductor devices that began in 2013. But interest in the project has since waned, and the government’s investment in it has gradually decreased.

“For large industries like semiconductors where academia, the government and private companies need to cooperate, there is no need to fear ‘government-led’ investment,” said Jung Kwang-ho, a professor of administration at Seoul National University.

“If the government were to cut investment in the semiconductor industry by saying it is already big business, this would be as absurd as the United States cutting support for NASA because it is already the world leader in space science.”

To take the lead in the post-silicon era, universities must also make changes in their research environments. The current system, which assesses professors based on the number of journal articles selected by the Science Citation Index, makes it difficult for talented academics to focus on semiconductor research because it’s not easy to publish on the topic.

The development of core technologies in related industries at home is also crucial to boosting Korea’s semiconductor industry. In one case, among the 15 trillion won budget SK Hynix’s M14 factory has earmarked, 12.6 trillion won - minus the 2.38 trillion won spent on construction - is set to go to purchasing facilities and special gasses needed to produce chips, meaning most of it went overseas.

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