It’s innovation time
The author, vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology, is a physics professor at Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech).
More than half a century has passed since Korea officially began developing science and technology by establishing a central government agency for that purpose in 1967.
But it was not until 2001 that the nation enacted the Framework Act on Science and Technology, which stipulated the fundamental principle for Korea’s science and technology policies. In an era of ultra-speed, state-led industrialization, actions had come before law.
Since the framework act legislation, the government’s annual budget for research and development (R&D) has jumped by double digits annually, starting from 4 trillion won ($3.29 billion) in 2001 to 24 trillion won this year. This very fact shows how the act, in effect, paved the way for Korea’s leap in science and technology.
During this phase, state-led R&D projects played a pivotal role in improving the Korean economy, especially in the fields of semiconductor, telecommunications, shipbuilding, chemistry, nuclear power and national defense.
But not all went perfectly. After the private sector’s R&D capabilities overwhelmed the public sector’s, the state role became increasingly ambiguous. As a result, the national R&D budget was even shared among 20 different government agencies, where there was too much red tape, and investments were made on insignificant initiatives simply for the sake of showing progress.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration tried to readjust the public science technology administrative system by founding the so-called Science Technology Innovation Headquarters. Through that agency, the government wanted to integrate R&D-related law systems of different government ministries. Yet the efforts were in vain, and the administration was later hit with a hodgepodge of nearly 300 R&D management regulations and 60 research support systems.
At a time when Korea needed to ascend from an economy chasing other developed countries to an economy creating new engines of innovation — and when the state must play a decisive role in the transition — the science and technology R&D system did not work effectively.
At the onset of the Moon Jae-in administration, I deeply thought about ways to wipe out such a web of inefficiency. I eventually joined an effort to pass the so-called National R&D Innovation Act in the National Assembly, which, after two years finally received the green light in the final plenary session of the 20th National Assembly.
The new act strives to enhance Korea’s innovative capacity by reforming its redundant R&D system and shaping an autonomous and responsible research environment. To achieve this mission, the law outlines several methods to create an ideal environment and support system for R&D innovation.
The law stipulates the establishment of an R&D integrated information system and calls on research management agencies — which connect government to on-ground researchers — to be scrutinized. R&D organizations, including universities, will have to form teams of people solely in charge of supporting researchers and their research.
The accountability of research lies with the researchers, while any accountability related to administrative work should lie with the research organization. A step-by-step process asking for improvements in the R&D system has been outlined in the law in case anyone wishes to do so.
Of course, this act in itself cannot create innovation — yet it can destroy the barriers that have blocked innovation from arising and facilitate innovative procedures. Each ministry will have to devise follow-up measures to live up to the spirit of the new law.
When you ask an official at the Ministry of Economy and Finance what he or she thinks innovative growth is, they will probably respond that it refers to cultivating new industrial fields and technology through focused investment. But that’s not the case. Investing in promising industries and technology is industrial policy, not innovation policy. (That misconception stems from a lack of understanding of the innovation economy paradigm.)
Actually, innovation policy refers to the investment in science technology and brains that create innovation.
The basis of this is supporting innovation, creating systems that protect innovation, destroying regulations that hinder progress in innovation and paving the way for new technologies and industries that we do not even know about — the types that will come after the technologies and industries that are now emerging. I genuinely hope that the newly passed National R&D Innovation Act will help promote such an environment, because after all, the future of our national economy depends on science technology innovation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.