South Korean scientists’ outcry over deliberate R&D funds cuts

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol delivers remarks while touring NASA's Goddard Space Center.

South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, had stated earlier this 12 months that he deliberate to keep up R&D spending at 5% of GDP.Credit score: Olivier Douliery/AFP by way of Getty

South Korea’s scientists have been left reeling after the federal government proposed substantial cuts to the 2024 federal analysis funds. Authorities spending on analysis and growth within the nation has been among the many highest on the planet, as a proportion of gross home product (GDP), and the announcement has sparked a uncommon outcry from researchers.

Eo Hwak Lee, a nuclear engineer on the Korea Superior Institute of Science and Expertise (KAIST) in Daejeon and chief vice-chair of the Union for Nationwide Science and Expertise Analysis, says that scientific unions and associations are becoming a member of collectively for the primary time to protest. The union that Lee co-chairs has organized press conferences and rallies, and has written to the nation’s Nationwide Meeting within the hope of profitable public assist. They and different teams have penned open letters opposing the plans.

The cuts, introduced by South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT) on 22 August, are the primary to focus on science funding in additional than three many years. Since 1991, the nation’s R&D funds has elevated steadily, accounting for greater than 4.5% of GDP in 2023, in keeping with the Organisation for Financial Co-operation and Growth, or OECD (see ‘Rising funds’). Even when South Korea skilled a monetary disaster in 1998, the analysis funds remained regular. And the nation’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, stated earlier this 12 months that he deliberate to keep up R&D spending at 5% to make the nation one of many world’s prime 5 nations for analysis.

“It’s type of a contradiction,” says So Younger Kim, a science and expertise political scientist at KAIST. In accordance with the Nationwide Analysis Council of Science and Expertise, which represents authorities establishments, organizations such because the Korea Institute of Science and Expertise Info and the Korea Analysis Institute of Chemical Expertise might see cuts of 28%; extremely ranked analysis establishments, similar to KAIST, might have their budgets lower by 10%.

Growing Budget: Line chart comparing gross domestic spending on R&D as percentage of GDP in South Korea with other regions.

Supply: OECD.

The federal government has defended its determination. In a press launch, it summarized the aim of the proposed cuts — which should nonetheless be permitted by South Korea’s Nationwide Meeting in December — as “making [the] authorities R&D system accurately”. The MSIT plans to remove tasks that it identifies as underperforming and to cut back oblique prices, similar to these for analysis infrastructure and gear. In accordance with the ministry, R&D spending grew by almost 50% through the pandemic years from 20.5 trillion received in 2019 to 31.1 trillion received in 2023 — the company says that a lot of this was to reply to COVID-19 and assist companies.

The ministry stated that it could improve its funding in seven particular areas, together with synthetic intelligence and semiconductors, though assist for fundamental analysis would drop by greater than 6% in favour of worldwide collaborative tasks.

“Globally, excellent analysis achievements predominantly stem from collaborative efforts inside analysis teams these days,” an MSIT spokesperson advised Nature. South Korean scientists, the particular person says, haven’t collaborated as a lot as these in Europe and the US, both domestically or internationally, so the federal government plans to broaden the funds for worldwide analysis change.

It allotted 2.8 trillion received (US$2 billion) to worldwide tasks such because the Boston–Korea Undertaking for Biosciences, which goals to create hyperlinks with companies within the biotech cluster in Boston, Massachusetts.

However Kei Cho, a neuroscientist at King’s Faculty London and co-founder of the UK–Korea Neuroscience Consortium, says that worldwide collaborations require extra than simply funding to get off the bottom. The federal government might want to construct infrastructure, similar to analysis centres and huge knowledge banks, and maintain assist for tasks over a protracted interval, he says.

Sinking morale

The prospect of long-term collaboration may not be sufficient for a youthful technology of graduates in science, expertise, engineering and arithmetic (STEM), who already face a scarcity of jobs requiring high-level {qualifications}, similar to PhDs. “There was a rising notion that STEM careers are much less secure and fewer profitable than different fields,” says Dongheon Lee, the president of the KAIST Graduate Scholar Affiliation. “The R&D funds cuts will solely serve to strengthen these destructive perceptions.” In August, Dongheon Lee’s affiliation and 6 different graduate and undergraduate organizations co-signed an open letter saying that the cuts would damage analysis high quality.

Even when the cuts don’t go forward, the proposals have already damage morale, says retired theoretical physicist Doochul Kim, a former president of South Korea’s Institute for Primary Science. “You can not plan for long-term tasks which take years to design,” he says. “Most significantly, you lose confidence sooner or later.”

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