Don’t mess with academiaShin Sung-chul, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist), was recently acquitted after he became the target of a prosecutorial probe after the Ministry of Science and ICT in 2018 accused him of making illegal payments to the California-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and favoritism in professor recruitment. The board of Kaist voted down the ministry’s request that he be dismissed. Alumni and the science community came together to defend him against what they called a groundless argument from the government.
The Kaist professor council slammed the government for accusing a reputable institution like LBNL — which produced 13 Noble Prize winners and devoted scientists like Shin — of embezzlement. LBNL also called Korea a “wonder land” for finding fault in a legitimate arrangement between the institution and Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology which Shin previously headed.
The science community protested against the Moon Jae-in government for stigmatizing it. Shin was grouped together with impeached President Park Geun-hye for having gone to the same elementary school. The magazine Nature also reported on the Korean scientists being treated unfairly by the government.
As many as 12 heads of state-funded science and research organizations were replaced before their term expired under the Moon administration. Lim Ki-chul, former president of the Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning, said he had been pressured by the vice science minister to resign. He stepped down in April 2018, with two years still left in his term.
Such dismissals after a new government comes into power is no different from the so-called “blacklisting” by the Park administration.
The government has been selective even in staffing at universities. Gongju National University of Education recommended Lee Myung-ju as the new president, after Lee won the first-ever direct vote with an overwhelming 66.4 percent. But the education ministry has rejected the recommendation for a re-vote without giving a clear reason. Lee filed a lawsuit against the move at the administrative court. Seven months later, the seat remains empty.
Science and education requires long-term leadership, as its vision must be far-sighted. The future is bleak if research and academic heads are replaced to meet the taste of a new administration. Academia requires sovereignty and freedom to serve as the incubator for creativity and innovation.