South Korea will provide international researchers with more access to government research and development (R&D) funds, and will eliminate barriers for international researchers conducting South Korean-funded research, putting them on an equal basis with domestic researchers, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in Seoul has said.
Alongside lowering barriers, the ministry will increase the international R&D budget which funds South Korean companies and think tanks to jointly develop technologies with foreign researchers.
This comes despite an overall drop by 16.7% in South Korea’s R&D budget after the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy’s proposed budget for R&D was revised. The revised version was approved by the cabinet on 29 August but is still to be passed by the National Assembly.
The current year’s budget of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy for international R&D is KRW216.5 billion (US$160 million), but the ministry confirmed in a press statement it will increase by 29.3% to KRW280 billion (US$210 million).
First Vice-Minister for Trade, Industry and Energy Jang Young-jin announced on 1 August during a briefing session on Korea-US industrial technology R&D at Palo Alto, California, that the ministry will fully open its budget for international joint R&D to international researchers, putting them on an equal basis with domestic researchers.
“The … global problems including the climate crisis require joint action, especially now since the global value chain is undergoing rapid reorganisation around allies with shared values,” Jang said at Palo Alto.
He was referring to US trade and technology restrictions on China and new trade and technology cooperation between the US and its Asian allies South Korea and Japan to counter the rise of China.
“Inter-country competition in advanced technologies is intensifying,” Jang said. “Along with large-scale technological innovation that transcends a single country, participation of researchers with advanced technological development capabilities is more pressing than ever,” Jang said.
Equal access to government funds
Jang explained that outstanding international joint R&D projects will be given top priority and overseas institutions in charge of such projects will also be eligible to participate.
Previously, overseas institutions could not be the main coordinators of South Korean government-funded international joint R&D projects, which meant they received a very low proportion of the allocated funds – approximately 10% of the overall international joint R&D budget.
For example, Stanford University participated in a KRW3.9 billion project related to semiconductor research, but received just KRW300 million in R&D funds for the project.
The ministry also plans to lower barriers for international researchers and eradicate discrimination between Korean and overseas researchers.
Previously, for example, the intellectual property rights derived by international researchers from research were not fully acknowledged as they could not take a leadership role in joint projects. The administrative work needed to apply for such funds was also a burden for international researchers.
Lee Young-yeol, deputy director of the Industrial Technology Department in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, confirmed to University World News that institutions eligible to participate in the projects include university research centres, and both Korean and foreign universities may benefit from the joint project funding.
However, the exact timetable for the changes has not yet been revealed. The ministry indicated this will be announced during September along with more details of the plan which will be called the “Comprehensive Strategy for Global Technology Cooperation” and will include a budget outline.
Jang said participants at the Palo Alto briefing, mostly researchers from US universities, expect an expansion in joint R&D. Korean higher education institutions will be less affected by the changes, though they could accelerate international joint research for universities.
Baek Jeong-ha, chief of the Korean Council for University Education (KCUE) Research Institute of Higher Education, told University World News: “KCUE hopes it may help universities in joint research teams but doesn’t have a clear opinion on this issue.”
Breaking the dominance of ‘technology cartels’
The changes are not merely linked to international geopolitical and technology issues and an increasing need for international research collaboration on high technology, but also to the need for changes in how South Korea’s state-funded R&D budget is spent.
Although South Korea is often praised for its university-industry research collaborations, a recent review of South Korea’s innovation policies by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out that government R&D spending is heavily concentrated on huge industrial conglomerates known as chaebols while R&D funding for other sectors is less effective.
President Yoon Suk Yeol said at a joint government briefing on economic policy objectives on 4 July in Seoul the country should “thoroughly examine and root out the unfair gains of powerful cartels, such as the monopolistic structure of specific industries and splitting of government subsidies among cartels”. The presidential office confirmed later that the ‘cartels’ referred to by Yoon include “science and technology cartels”.
Yoon also ordered more collaboration with overseas scientific research institutes, taking some research organisations by surprise.
According to a 3 July written briefing by Lee Do-woon, spokesperson for the president, newly-appointed vice ministers were asked to fight against “cartels with vested interests”.
Notably, the appointment of former secretary for science and technology Cho Seong-kyung as first vice-minister of science and ICT is being seen as indicative of Yoon’s determination to dismantle what is often referred to as the (R&D) ‘budget cartel’.
As a result of this approach, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy’s R&D budget for 2024, normally presented to the National Assembly in June, was rescinded, and the new budget which reduced the ministry’s R&D spending by 13.8% was announced this week.
The Ministry of Science and ICT’s budget which funds domestic research is also facing a 10.2% cut year on year from KRW9.8 trillion to KRW8.8 trillion, although a government drive to invest more in biotech, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, quantum, semiconductors, rechargeable batteries and the Space sector will see funding in those areas, from all R&D budgets and not just the Ministry of Science and ICT, rise by 22.2%.
Paring of less ‘meaningful’ projects
The government explained that Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy funding for R&D projects with outcomes in the lower 20% percentile in ranking of success evaluations, would be reduced, and 108 projects “without meaningful results” merged.
The budget reduction mainly affects R&D funding for local and medium-sized companies. The R&D budget for these companies increased during the previous government of Moon Jae-in and took the form of small allocations of less than KRW100 million (US$75,600) per project.
The budget for government-funded research institutions has also been reduced amid criticism that they received funds for research projects that do not produce results.
However, demanding results and reducing the budget in less successful areas may harm basic science research. A professor at one of the national institutes of science and technology told University World News: “It is good to find problems and fix [them], but reducing the budget overall is not reasonable.”