On August 31, Professor Dae-sik Im of the Department of Biological Sciences was appointed Vice Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) by President Jae-in Moon. Professor Im became the successor to former Vice Minister Ky-young Park, who left the post merely four days after her appointment in early August due to her past involvement in the so-called “Hwang Fraud Scandal”.
The Science, Technology and Innovation Office is a new branch under the Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT), created by President Moon back in June. As Vice Minister for STI, Professor Im will lead the branch of the ministry that oversees national R&D projects worth 20 trillion KRW. The STI office also deliberates and allocates the respective budgets of those projects, and is in charge of performance evaluation.
The establishment of the STI Office shows President Moon’s intention to strengthen the MSIT’s role as a “Science, Technology, Innovation Control Tower”, which not only is in charge of science and technology policy and performance evaluation as stated before, but also has increased authority over budgetary issues.
The MSIT now works together with the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MOSF) when setting the R&D expenditure limit, which used to be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the MOSF. Furthermore, the MSIT has assumed what used to be the MOSF’s authority to conduct preliminary feasibility studies on R&D projects. The MSIT is also now able to adjust operating expenses and labor costs for government-funded research institutes, such as the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI).
The government’s hope is that with its newly found power, the STI Office will be able to more effectively enact science and technology policies, now having become more independent from other financial government bodies. The Vice Minister of STI has been provided a seat in cabinet meetings, which were originally restricted to ministers and higher-ranking officials. Being able to participate in such a council allows the vice minister to directly influence and participate in the decision-making process involving important policies.
Given this major restructuring of organization, the government’s view is quite clear: something as crucial as budget authority should revolve around the MSIT and researchers themselves. It is no wonder that President Moon named Professor Im as Ky-young Park’s successor for the Vice Minister position, given Professor Im’s decades of experience as a researcher in academia.
Another notable aspect regarding Professor Im’s appointment is his field of expertise. Professor Im is one of the country’s leading authorities on cancer research and molecular cell biology, having become the world’s first to reveal the role of the anti-cancer gene RASSF1A back in 2004. He later on served as the Academic Chairperson to the Korean Society for Molecular and Cellular Biology (KSMCB) and as the head of the KAIST Creative Research Center of Cell Division and Differentiation.
His experience in basic research, both as a researcher and as a manager, did not go unnoticed. During the announcement of Professor Im’s appointment, Blue House Spokesperson Soo-hyun Park said, “[Professor Im] is the right person to establish a support infrastructure for the development of basic science research and to effect innovation in science and technology,”
It was no coincidence that someone with Professor Im’s experience in basic research was selected for the job. The current administration seems to have clear goals to support basic research and develop original technology. This was demonstrated by another major restructuring of the MSIT that happened this summer; the Creative Economy Policy Bureau, a branch of office that provides support for technology startup companies, was transferred from the MSIT to the Ministry of SMEs (Small, Medium Enterprises) and Startups (MSS).
For a long time, the science and technology community has been pointing out that national R&D projects that build up new knowledge and advance technology should not be evaluated against the investment that goes into those projects. With the transfer of the Creative Economy Policy Bureau from MSIT, however, the government seems to be prepared to commit money and resources to basic research, even though the results may not fare well in terms of publications, patents, and potential market value. This move by the current administration is a boon for those who engage in basic research at KAIST, whose global competitiveness in basic research has been declining over the past few years (2016 Nature Index).