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[Editorial] Trial and error

In January 2008, when the transition committee for president-elect Lee Myung-bak decided to abolish the Ministry of Science and Technology to put his campaign pledge of small government into practice, an array of academics and industrialists raised strong objections. They feared that absence of a central administration agency responsible for promotion of science and technology would inevitably cause a slowdown in the nation’s R&D efforts, weakening international competitiveness. The new government did not pay heed to the petition and the ministry’s functions were taken over by other ministries.

Since then complaints grew particularly from among the many national research institutes and universities for their being “neglected” in the allotment of state funds for various development projects. The allegedly stagnant progress in the area of information technology and in the “green (sustainable) growth” sector these past few years seemed to justify their criticism. There were steady calls for the revival of the Science Ministry.

President Lee could not turn the clock back. Instead, the government picked up the largely inactive National Science and Technology Council from among the numerous presidential advisory panels to make it a quasi-administrative agency in charge of science and technology affairs. A revision bill to the Basic Law on Science and Technology passed the National Assembly late last year with a schedule to inaugurate the new NSTC in April this year.

Yoon Jong-yong, a former vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, was among the prominent objectors to closing down Science Ministry in 2008. He is being invited to take the helm of the new NSTC, which will have 150 technical and administrative staff in addition to permanent and non-permanent members. Most importantly, the council, which had official plenary meeting only three times in a year, will now have full power to distribute state R&D funds to research organizations and industrial firms.

The “upgrading” of the NSTC resolves only a part of the problems in the science-technology administration. Reform of the many state-funded research institutes, some of which belong to different government ministries, is another complicated issue. The new NSTC is to take control of them in principle, after mergers when necessary, but current controlling ministries do not like the plan. Yoon is thought to be reluctant to accept the NTSC chairmanship because of the complexity of this task.

Things would not have been so complicated if the Ministry of Science and Technology had not been abolished in the first place. Now President Lee shows strong enthusiasm in streamlining the science-technology administration in conjunction with his emphasis on green growth. The president must by now have perceived the problems involved in translating political slogans into real administration, but we regret that his understanding came a little too late.