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Barun Roy: A Korean big bang?

Barun Roy/ 29 Nov 12 | 12:09 AM

In a “big bang" desire to live down its copycat image and become an innovator nation, South Korea has started a global hunt for scientists who could help it achieve that goal. This marks a significant new development in the country’s pursuit of science and technology and perhaps the beginning of a new business equation where domestic and foreign high-tech enterprises will both have a useful role.

The kick-off comes in the form of an International and Science and Business Belt that the government has decided to establish, over the next five years, with Daejeon as the main centre and three other cities – Cheongwon, Yeongi and Cheonan – providing functional support. The expectation is that enterprises would be drawn to the belt to link their own R&D goals with basic science research to be undertaken by various belt institutes, elevating South Korea to a higher level of excellence and competition.

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At the heart of the project is what the government believes will be its trump card, the Institute for Basic Science (IBS), based in Daejeon; and, to prove that this time it means business and won’t be influenced or diverted by any political considerations, the government has given IBS a hefty $4.4 billion budget to set itself up and be fully battle-ready by 2017.

Formally launching IBS last May, President Lee Myung-bak left no one in doubt about his government’s scientific commitment and its intention to turn IBS into a “dream institute" attractive to the best scientists from around the world. “We have so far copied and pursued advanced technologies," he said. “However, in order to make a leap into the ranks of the advanced, first-class nations, we must develop a history of creation based on basic science and fundamental technologies."

Daejon, known as South Korea’s science and technology capital, where 18 universities and many government and private research institutes are located, is thus destined for greater international glory. The talent search that’s now on and will remain open for the next two years, is for the directorships of specialised research centres that IBS intends to set up in designated research areas, such as mathematics, theoretical physics, global and regional environmental change, optics-based basic science, advanced new materials, and bio-nano technology.

Each director will be offered a 10-year contract, an annual budget of about $9 million, autonomy in setting research goals, and complete freedom in recruiting staff and running centre activities. There will be no official interference or questioning, and no compulsion to produce results. This is a radical departure from the current practice that obliges scientists on government-funded research to return their research funds if their projects fail. It’s now realised that such a policy provides no room for creativity – since researchers choose only those projects that are considered safe and unlikely to fail – and without creativity there can’t be any innovation.

Says Oh Se-jung, a noted physicist who’s president of IBS, of the new dispensation: “It’s okay to fail. We just want them to be more adventurous." That’s the only way, he feels, that IBS can take its place alongside such prestigious global centres as Germany’s Max Plank Institute and Japan’s RIKEN, the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, and, maybe, lead South Korea towards a Nobel Prize in the not too distant future!

The Nobel ambition, Oh says, isn’t unrealistic, since Korean scientific capability is well established. For example, Korea ranks among the top 10 countries in the world in stem cell research, though a wide gap still remains between it and the advanced nations. Oh also refers to a memorandum signed by California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology last October for an exchange programme involving professors and students, and holds it as a recognition of the country’s growing scientific reputation.

Caltech has signed only four such agreements so far internationally, a fact that Oh believes should serve as a big boost to South Korea’s scientific morale and IBS’ own research motivation. And, as South Korea’s scientific “animalism" becomes more pronounced, “it is not unrealistic at all to expect a Nobel Prize for us fairly soon," he quipped in a recent press interview.

IBS has already announced its intention to build South Korea’s first rare-isotope accelerator, among a slew of other projects. It plans to set up 50 research centres in Daejeon and around the country, and recruit 3,000 researchers and staff to man them. The $9 million annual budget that each centre will have is 10 times what individual research groups now get and reflects the seriousness of the government’s commitment to IBS and South Korea’s scientific future. Once IBS gets going, and foreign universities are drawn to the proposed science and business beltway as well, as the government expects they will be, that commitment is sure to get even bigger.

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