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Korea Research Chief Espouses "Free to Fail" Culture

22 September 2009 3:03 am
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Earlier this summer, South Korea merged three science agencies to form the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF). The new body will control a $2 billion pot of money, roughly 20% of the government’s annual R&D spending. Science recently caught up with NRF’s first president, computer scientist Chan-Mo Park.

Q: By any measure, Korea is a technology powerhouse, but its achievements have come more from emulation than innovation. How will NRF change that?

C.M.P.: High-risk, high-return projects will have higher priority. Up to now, a researcher who has experienced a failure in research had a big disadvantage in applying new projects. But we will change this practice.

Q: NRF intends to promote a “free-to-fail culture.” What does that mean?

C.M.P.: If a researcher fails in achieving the original goal of a project, the reason for the failure will be examined and evaluated carefully to judge the researcher’s capability. If success is always 100% guaranteed, it is not a research project in my mind. By allowing a free-to-fail culture, researchers can pursue more creative and higher-risk projects.

Q: Your foundation intends to select projects dealing with groundbreaking ideas or new fields without external evaluation. Why bypass peer review?

C.M.P.: This policy is to attract researchers to propose creative and bold emerging projects that would be difficult to be selected by conventional evaluation methods such as peer review. About 5% of research grants will be used for this purpose.

Credit: Courtesy of Chan-Mo Park

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