Government cuts R&D budget, scientific community stunned

The South Korean government has unveiled a substantial 16.6% reduction in research and development (R&D) spending in its budget proposal for 2024, taking the country’s science community by surprise. If passed by the National Assembly in December, it will be the first reduction in science spending in 33 years.

On 22 August the government released its budget adjustment for R&D, revising it from KRW31.1 trillion (US$23.4 billion) in 2023, to KRW25.9 trillion won (US$19.5 billion).

Basic research funds decreased by 6.2% under the proposal, while government-funded research institutions will have to grapple with a 10.8% cut.

On 28 June, during a national fiscal strategy meeting, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol pointed out that past R&D practices resembled a ‘vested interest cartel’ where certain recipients dominate government funded R&D projects.

Following this, the government’s R&D budget proposal for 2024 was withdrawn by the Ministry of Science and ICT, just a day before its mandatory review and approval by the National Science and Technology Advisory Council on 29 June.

Under the amended budget proposal unveiled in August, the main allocation for science and technology research saw a 13.9% decrease from 2023, now at KRW21.5 trillion (US$16.2 billion). This came as a shock, given the government’s historical commitment over several decades to bolstering the nation's scientific and technological prowess.

It includes spending cuts to general R&D, including 10% cuts in the budget for the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), and in the Gwangju, Daegu and Ulsan institutes of science and technology.

The Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information and Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology face a 28% reduction in their budgets for next year, according to a notification from the Ministry of Science and ICT.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute was informed of a 23% cut in government funding. The Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies and other scientists’ associations were informed they could face up to a 70% reduction in government financial support.

Defending its decision, the administration described the reductions as an attempt to streamline strategic technology research.

Minister of Science and ICT Lee Jong-ho said on 22 August: “We will boldly eliminate accumulated inefficiencies to streamline and innovate the budget and system so that the ‘vested interest cartel’ can never take root again.

“While R&D innovation may be challenging and difficult, we must come together to achieve it if our country is to survive and advance in the technology hegemony competition.”

New science alliance to counter cuts

The broader scientific community does not agree. They believe the cutbacks could result in many research institutes being unable to afford the salaries of emerging researchers.

On 5 September, nine major science and technology labour unions convened in Daejeon – regarded as a research hub for South Korea – in a pivotal meeting to mark the inauguration of the Science and Technology Community Alliance Conference.

Led by scientists affiliated with government-funded research institutes and other scientists – and even including officials from the Ministry of Science and ICT who support the R&D activities of the scientific community – the new alliance hopes that by joining forces they can influence national policies on R&D.

Seong Ju-young, chair of the science, technology and information communication department in the National Civil Servants Labour Union, said at the Daejon meeting: “The administration has audaciously trimmed the national R&D budget, neglecting the budgeting process protocols enshrined in the Basic Science and Technology Act.

“This has meant that around 30% of core project costs for science and technology institutions have been forcibly reduced.”

Moon Sung-mo, chair of the Scientists and Engineers’ Association of National Research Institutes, said: “Since the issue of research budget cuts [emerged], we have not been able to focus on research for nearly two months.

“Research and development plans that have been planned for a long time and systematically established will be disrupted overnight, leading to disruptions in the research field. We can already feel it.”

The alliance rejected the government’s budget reductions for R&D and what it called the government’s “systemic changes” that jeopardise the country’s future. It demanded “immediate reinstatement” of the R&D budget, which it said had been “rashly and unlawfully” slashed.

How efficient is Korea’s R&D spending?

As a follow-up measure to improve research efficiency, the ministry has formed the Global R&D Innovation Advisory Committee composed of nine Korean scholars from both domestic and international backgrounds, and with extensive international experience, to review systemic reform that reflects international trends and practices.

Overseen by Joo Young-chang, head of the ministry’s science and technology innovation division, it started its activities with a meeting on 6 September. The aim is to generate excellent national R&D results, focusing on global research collaboration and improvements in R&D evaluation management.

Amidst the escalating conflict between the government and the scientific community, a South Korean startup company Pluto Labs, which operates the international academic search engine Scinapse, independently assessed the efficiency of South Korea's R&D budget.

In a comparison published on 23 August it used data on R&D investment from the OECD’s main science and technology indicators, comparing it to the achievements of researchers.

According to the data, between 2016 and 2022, South Korea churned out less than three academic papers per US$1 million of government investment, while Japan and the United States produced a commendable five papers for the same amount of government spending.

However, Korean researchers consistently produced papers that featured in prestigious journals like Cell, Nature and Science.

In the same period, the citation count – a primary metric indicating research significance – increased concurrently with budget allocations. The 2021 citation count nearly doubled compared to 2016.

CEO of Pluto Labs Yoo Jun-seon, who led the analysis, said: “Considering that the [R&D] budget has also increased during this period, performance relative to budget has seen an improvement of about 30%, from 2016 to 2021.”