Reuniting science and technology
The author is the head of the Graduate School of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at KAIST.
In his first Asian tour, U.S. President Joe Biden’s first destination was Korea, not Japan. After his arrival in Korea on Friday, he visited a Samsung Electronics semiconductor campus before visiting the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, and stressed the importance of the technology alliances. Biden’s latest move is extremely significant taking into account the competition between the United States and China and the major transformation of global geopolitics. It shows that the key factor of national security and international politics and economy is science, technology and advanced industries, in other words, economic security. It means that the world has entered the era of technology alliances, moving beyond the political, economic and security alliances. It means that science and technology became security assets.
Biden’s latest move also shows that Korea has grown to replace China as a key partner of the global economy. Furthermore, it shows that the semiconductor has become the core weapon of the 21st century geopolitics. Semiconductor design and production are super-advanced technology, and it is the essence of all basic sciences and advanced technologies.
Most advanced industries in the 21st century, such as quantum technology, space technology and artificial intelligence, are like the semiconductor industry. And science and technology aides of the Biden administration are aware of it. Last year, they established a massive technology innovation department inside the National Science Foundation, for the first time in 70 years, to attempt to reunite science and technology.
It had long been a U.S. tradition that science and technology were integrated, but they were separated through globalization period. They are now being merged, and at the same time, the change considers national security. It is because science and technology are the resource that will determine national security.
Korea is one of the countries that accomplished growth through integration and innovation of science and technology. When the Korea Institute of Science and Technology was established in 1966, Korean scientists from around the world were recruited. All leading industries of the country, such as the semiconductor, automobile, shipbuilding, chemical, steel and heavy industries, were planned and developed at the time based on the institute’s integrated strategy, facilitating Korea’s growth. And yet, after Korea’s industrialization is completed and it entered the stage of advancement, it was unable to avoid the global change of decoupling between science and technology. The gap between research and development portfolios widened, and investments into science were limited to the research and development stage only.
New innovation in Korea is demanded, as we can see from Biden’s decision to visit the Samsung Electronics semiconductor campus. First, it is recoupling of science and technology. We need a strategy to link research and development portfolios of universities and research institutes to technology development portfolio of industries.
Projects centered on key areas, such as artificial intelligence, semiconductor, aerospace, quantum and bio technologies, should be pushed forward between renowned universities and companies not only in Korea but also in the United States to start recoupling and find a link with the global innovation ecosystem. Tax exemption should be given on research and development cooperation projects between private companies and the government for new growth engine.
Second, decoupling of Korea’s innovation system is seen most severely in the mismatch of supply and demand of science and technology human resources. In the semiconductor industry, professionals educated by universities are just 20 percent of what the industry needs. There is a forecast that Korea will be short of over 100,000 professionals in the software industry in the next five years. Other industries are no different in this shortages. Regulations on universities and the lack of innovation are accelerating the decoupling and eroding the Korean economy’s growth potential. Therefore, autonomous and strategic operation of universities in managing faculties and student quotas is urgent, starting with the new growth strategy area, and self-reform of demolishing the traditional divides in the academic fields is also demanded.
Third, Korea needs an active foundation of science startups. Universities and research institutes are the source of innovation. Since 2018, about 40,000 companies have been started by Stanford alumni and faculty, creating 5 million jobs. Research and development accomplishments of the Korean universities, which failed to be commercialized, are just enriching foreign companies. In order to overcome the irony, we need to create a new link between science and technology by actively supporting startup creations by the academia.
The “Innovation Growth Fund,” which reformed the startup ecosystem in Korea, should be applied to the science and technology field to establish a massive fund of funds, and a new culture of applauding failures should be established. Biden’s proposal of Korea-U.S. technology alliance is an opportunity for Korea to become a leader in the era of science and technology.