SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA--Despite an economy on the brink of bankruptcy, South Korea has given a strong vote of confidence to increased public funding for research. On 12 December, a panel of senior government officials approved a "5-Year Science and Technology Innovation Plan" that would bolster investment in a variety of fields and strengthen the country's capacity to do basic research through increased training and interaction with foreign scientists and new facilities.
The plan instructs the new government of Kim Dae Jung to spend 5% of its budget on R&D by 2002. That percentage is comparable to U.S. levels, and well above Korea's current figure of 3.9%. "This plan will contribute to promoting our sluggish economy," says Kwon Oh Kap, an official at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). Although loan conditions set by The International Monetary Fund mandate a 10% cut in government spending, MOST officials believe that science will be protected as Korea retrenches.
Researchers applaud the government's view. While federal R&D spending during the 1990s has increased 21% annually--twice the rate of the overall budget--some observers say the growth has been skewed toward support for reverse engineering and other quick fixes. "The current financial crisis is partly caused by the lack of investment into real research," says Choi Ja Young, a biochemical engineering professor at Seoul National University. The plan would pour money into such areas as new materials, information systems, electronics, and biotechnology.
One major obstacle standing in the way of the new plan's lofty goals is the current financial crisis. "We cannot plan right now. This economic situation is so bad," admits Kim Eun Yong, chair of the Presidential Commission on Science and Technology. Adds Choi, "Of course the government promises so, but I don't know whether they'll really do it."