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The open secret that underpins South Korea’s science success

Enormous burden on younger researchers cannot be sustained.

1 October 2020

Bongjae Kim and Ara Go

Ed Jones/Getty Images

A researcher in the Bio Safety Level 3 laboratory at the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul. South Korea.

South Korea’s recent achievements in foundational research are remarkable. In March, a group from the country’s Institute for Basic Science (IBS) become one of the first in the world to sequence the transcriptome (the total product of all expressed genes) of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and in 2018, a team from the IBS Center for Underground Physics ascribed new constraints to the theorized particles that could constitute dark matter.

But many of the scientists who are driving such major research initiatives are under pressure.

As a result of government initiatives to increase the country’s foundational research output, the number of highly skilled young researchers is accumulating rapidly while openings for long-term positions in academia dwindle.

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Bongjae Kim. Credit: Kwangsu Ahn

Initially, the nation’s priority in driving foundational research – exploratory work in a relatively new area of science – was to promote graduate schools with strength in science and engineering.

In the late ‘90s, it launched Brain Korea 21 (BK21), a higher-education reform programme that provides support for postgrads and early-career scientists conducting basic research by covering their salaries, travel, and living expenses.

More recently, significant government funding has supported large-scale projects, such as the IBS, the country’s research flagship, which was established in 2012; the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, due to launch in 2022; and Korea’s branch of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the world's largest fusion experiment.

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Ara Go

Such investments have created many opportunities for young researchers, but most of these are temporary postdoctoral or non-tenure-track faculty positions that sit within the rigidly hierarchical structure of the nation’s universities, between PhD students and tenured faculty.

These researchers, including many former and current participants in the BK21 programme, are responsible for most of the practical work that drives major research projects in South Korea.

Alongside other young non-tenure-track researchers (known in South Korea by various titles such as research professor, junior group leader, and young scientist fellow), they form the backbone of South Korean science, but they are in a precarious position.

Some of the country’s brightest minds are now looking outside academia for opportunities.

Dwindling positions for researchers in limbo

South Korea's current fertility rate is the lowest among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The number of high school students has decreased from 2 million in 2010 to 1.36 million from 2020, and the number of students entering colleges is in sharp decline as a result.

In response, universities are actively reducing the size of their departments. They often start with basic science units which, unlike translational research, often cannot guarantee immediate financial rewards. For example, the number of physics departments in South Korean universities is 45 today, down from 61 in 2008.

The number of faculty positions is also decreasing. Many universities are not replacing faculty who retire, and the criteria for evaluating promotions and new tenure applications are becoming more demanding.

If one is lucky enough to ‘pass through the eye of the needle’ and land a faculty position, the relief is only temporary. There is an enormous burden put on young researchers to perform, in part due to pressure from the government for universities to boost their international ranking through high-quality research publishing.

At the same time, financial support for young researchers from institutions is lacking.

Accessing enough funding to initiate your own research can be extremely difficult. Seed money is negligible, unless you are working for one of the top-tier universities. In many national universities, a typical funding amount is around US$10,000, which is not enough to cover even the initial set-up of experiments.

Many young researchers seek external funding sources as an alternative, such as from the government and industry, but these are not only difficult to win, but are not as flexible as in-house start-up arrangements.

It can take years to initiate the early stages of a project funded this way, which means a large portion of new ideas from young researchers are not put into practice.

The unsung heroes of science

Despite poor support, young researchers are committed and highly productive. According to a recent report from the National Research Foundation of Korea, full-time faculty under 40 years old won 4.9% of federal grants in 2019, but produce 11.1% of international academic publications.

The development of South Korean science owes a lot to previous generations. After the Korean War, the country was one of the poorest in the world, but now, it is one of the most innovative countries globally, its spending on research and development as a percentage of its gross domestic product second only to Israel’s.

It is a leader in high-quality research publishing, ranked ninth in the world in the Nature Index 2020 Annual tables. Its capital, Seoul, is Nature Index’s 12th highest ranked Science City.

But it is also true that the current strong position of South Korean science owes much to the commitment of young researchers, their hard work and, above all, their risk-taking. A system that exploits the younger workforce cannot be sustained.

To maintain the success of South Korean science, a paradigm shift is needed.

Future investment in basic science should include promoting bottom-up funding – where individual researchers and their teams can choose the projects they want supported – and enhancing job security for the next generation.

The South Korean government is aware of the issue. In late June, the Ministry of Science and ICT discussed young scientists’ career development in their future policy proposal [8]. One agenda item of note was “to keep the young researchers within Korea, not losing them to overseas countries”.

We hope the future policy may address such problems to ensure a sustainable contribution of South Korea to basic science.

Bongjae Kim is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at Kunsan National University in South Korea.

Ara Go is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at Chonnam National University and Center for Theoretical Physics of Complex Systems at the Institute for Basic Science, South Korea.

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