[Robert J. Fouser] Structural changes needed in STEM research
One of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign promises is to turn South Korea into a leader in STEM research. This promise follows decades of presidential efforts to promote science and technology as part of broader economic and social development plans. Presidents have come and gone, but each effort has built on the other, leaving the country in a strong position to deliver on the president-elect’s promise.
The quantification of academic activity produced various indices of research output in English. One of the most prestigious is the Nature Index, a measure of places and institutions producing high-quality research based on publication results in 82 selected, reputable scientific journals. By this measure in 2020, South Korea ranks eighth, between Canada and Switzerland. The United States, China and Germany occupy the first three places. Institutional rankings place the Harvard Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Society in the top three places, Seoul National University, Korea’s top-ranked institution, ranking 58th, and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and technologies ranking in 64th place.
Further analysis of the data reveals some interesting trends. In chemistry, for example, South Korea is sandwiched in sixth place between the UK and France. In physical sciences, the country ranks sixth between Japan and France. In earth and environmental sciences, the country ranks 13th and, in life sciences, 14th. This suggests weakness in areas that have received the greatest need in recent years.
A look at 2020 data from the SCImago Journal & Country Rank based on information from the Scopus database shows similar trends. Chinese sources rank first and US sources second while South Korea ranks 14th. According to the h-index, an author-level ranking of academic production and performance, the United States ranks first, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany; South Korea drops to 17th place. This ranking includes the fields of humanities and social sciences where the ratio of articles written in Korean is higher. Among the many subfields, South Korea ranks first in chemistry and computer science.
South Korean university rankings, which have received more attention in the national media, offer yet another perspective. Among the widely cited rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities developed by Shanghai Jiao Tong University mainly focuses on research output. The 2021 ranking shows Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge in the top three spots, while SNU ranks in the 101-150 band. Along with KAIST, Hanyang, Korea, Sungkyunkwan, and Yonsei universities, they all belong to the 201-300 group.
Taken together, the data suggests that researchers are productive, but their work is less influential. This helps explain why rankings, especially research rankings, of South Korean universities are low relative to population and level of economic and social development. It may also explain why a South Korean scientist has yet to receive a Nobel Prize.
To achieve Yoon’s goals, policymakers need to invest heavily in important research areas where the country is currently lagging behind. The pandemic has shown the importance of medical research, but South Korea remains weak in this area. The National Institutes of Health in the United States, for example, ranks 15th in the Nature Index. Other health research centers in France, Germany, Italy and the United States are included in the ranking. Reliance on foreign vaccines has raised public awareness of the need for more investment in medical science.
Another area of weakness is environmental science. Addressing climate change will require intense research, not only into renewable energy, but also into remedial technologies. Investing heavily in this area will also help strengthen the country’s position in areas, such as chemicals, where it is already strong. Weakness in this area may help explain South Korea’s continued reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Increasing university funding would be the obvious place to start, but it may not be the best way to use government money. Over the past 20 years, the government has increased funding for universities, partly in the hope of increasing their international visibility. Increased investment has undoubtedly helped researchers, but academic research rankings remain low.
Another approach would be to create a whole new research institution from existing and new institutions that can target, fund and direct research more effectively than universities. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society and the French National Center for Scientific Research, which hold three of the top four places in the Nature Index, are examples of this approach. Although bold, only a major structural shift in research will make it possible to achieve the ambitious goals of the president-elect.
Robert J. Fouser, former Associate Professor of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University, writes about Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be contacted at [email protected] — Ed.