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South Korea’s ‘Nobel prize project’ rocked by tough year

Researchers fear for the future of the Institute for Basic Science, which has faced accusations of misconduct and a sizeable budget cut.

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Celebration Speech by President Kim Doochul at the Inauguration ceremony of Nanomedicine Center Building

President of the Institute for Basic Science Kim Doochul. His term ends this month. Credit: IBS

Update: South Korea's science ministry announced on 10 September that the Institute for Basic Science would be reorganized, following government investigations into the institute's research centres.

It’s been a tumultuous year for the prestigious Institute for Basic Science in South Korea — a collection of research centres that was founded in 2011 and designed to win the country its first science Nobel prize. Modelled on the Max Planck Society in Germany and RIKEN in Japan, the institute’s mission is to foster blue-skies basic science in a country traditionally more focused on applied research. But over the past 12 months, it has faced government investigations and calls for reform, following accusations of nepotism and financial mismanagement — as well as a sizeable cut to its research budget.

The Institute for Basic Science (IBS) is now seeking a new leader: the current president Doochul Kim’s term ends later this month. But many IBS researchers say his replacement, whoever it is, will face a considerable challenge to turn around the organization’s fortunes. Many researchers argue that the allegations against the institute — and the media's response — have been overblown. Still, they worry that the events of the past year might have a lasting impact and make it difficult for the organization to properly function.

“The basic philosophy of the IBS was to give full freedom for the researchers to carry out whatever they want to do,” says Narry Kim, director of the IBS Center for RNA Research. Leading scientists from South Korea and abroad were recruited to start the IBS centres, and were promised autonomy to run them along with roughly 10 billion won (US$8.4 million) a year. But some centre directors worry that proposals for reform, made in wake of the turmoil could erode their autonomy, which they argue would undermine the organization’s original mission.

Many researchers say that IBS has helped to globalize South Korea’s research. The scale and resources of IBS centres help to forge collaborations with international researchers, says Philip Kim, a condensed matter physicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “That’s one of the best things that IBS has done for Korean research,” he says.

Tough year

The institute’s recent troubles started in October, when lawmakers from the ruling liberal Democratic Party grilled Doochul Kim during annual parliamentary hearings. They criticized a project to construct a heavy ion particle accelerator in Daejeon for being over budget and behind schedule. The Rare Isotope Science Project consumes about one-third of IBS’s budget. Doochul Kim told Nature that one of the project’s ion sources has been delayed by a year, but that this is a minor setback for a large-scale project.

Following the hearings, the government announced in November that it was auditing 4 of IBS’s 30 centres. And a week later, it confirmed that IBS’s research budget would be cut by 7%, from 254 billion to 236.3 billion won. The cut, which came into effect this year, left centres with an average budget of a little over 6 billion won, says Doochul Kim.

The organization came under further scrutiny when several South Korean broadcasters reported in June that according to audit results, at least two centres had misspent research funds. Media reports also called out multiple centres for questionable hiring procedures, including candidates being reviewed by acquaintances. The media coverage was followed by another government audit — this time of 24 of the 30 IBS centres. The investigation was due to finish last month. The science ministry has not yet released its findings, and the negative media coverage of the organization has continued.

Doochul Kim told Nature that most of the allegations against IBS reported in the media amount to administrative errors rather than nefarious wrongdoing. He thinks that the audits are politically motivated, and criticizes the way some preliminary results have been leaked to the press.

Since its inception, IBS has had critics who think the institute swallows up too much of the nation’s basic research budget. It’s the institute’s “original sin”, says So Young Kim, a science and technology political scientist at KAIST. The institute is also associated with the country's main conservative party which founded it. When the Democratic Party to power in 2017, it was more interested in spreading resources to many researchers, says So Young Kim. “It's a very different philosophy."

When president Moon Jae-in campaigned for election in 2017, his party promised to double the country’s researcher-led grants for basic research. The science ministry says it is on track to meet that goal by 2020.

Doochul Kim says his biggest regret as IBS president is not adapting to the political environment and failing to persuade more politicians to support the institute’s vision.

The shifting political mood has already impacted IBS's vision, laments Doochul Kim. IBS centres were originally granted a ten-year term, with a review for extension in their eighth year. The founding group of centres will come up for review from next year—and it seems likely that only some will be extended, says Kim.

Yannis Semertzidis, director of the IBS Center for Axion and Precision Physics Research at KAIST in Daejeon, suspects that falling budgets are also partly to blame for a decision to put his request to purchase a high-temperature superconducting magnet on hold. Such equipment is crucial for the centre's search for the axion — a theorized particle that could be a component of dark matter. The magnet would give his group a significant advantage over its competition, the Axion Dark Matter Experiment at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But a spokesperson for IBS says the project was reviewed in two evaluations and both found that the project lacked proper feasibility to continue.

Growing pains

Narry Kim, who leads an IBS centre that she says was audited in July, notes that the behaviours that have been criticized might have arisen because of confusion about the rules — rather than anything more nefarious — and that this is an expected “growing pain” for an innovative style of research organization. IBS was designed to break the mould of other public institutions and universities in South Korea by giving centre directors freedom and larger-scale funding to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects that could win Nobel prizes. South Korea has never won a scientific Nobel, and IBS is frequently referred to as the nation’s “Nobel prize project”.

But IBS’s flexibility has sometimes led to ambiguity, Kim says. For instance, ten IBS centres, including hers, are administered by host universities and so are subject to both university and IBS regulations, which sometimes conflict or lead to confusion.

Doochul Kim accepts that some features of IBS need to change to protect centres from being involved in further scandals. He says that he has proposed redefining the institute’s core principle of autonomy so that centre heads would no longer have direct authority to hire tenure-track research fellows, and avoid accusations of nepotism. IBS directors are allowed to do this, but the public can be quick to anger at any hint of nepotism. He also proposed changes to IBS’ administrative structure. For instance, the institute currently has administrative staff at each research centre, but he wants the five IBS centres at KAIST to share a centralized office that would be more powerful and relieve directors of some of their administrative burdens, such as approving all purchasing decisions, no matter how small.

But the proposals undermine IBS’s original goal of having centre directors make decisions about how they are run, says Semertzidis. IBS management should strengthen internal auditing to root out actual misconduct, but not interfere with the decision-making of directors, he argues.

With Kim’s term almost over, it will be up to his successor to follow-through on his proposals. A committee formed by the IBS board of trustees announced on 5 September a shortlist of three South Korean physicists. The nation’s science minister will nominate one person, subject to the approval of Moon Jae-in.

One bit of good news for the institute is a funding boost for 2020, according to the science ministry’s proposed budget, announced earlier this month. Although this will be for construction of future facilities and not for research centres, an IBS official told Nature.

Semertzidis says the new leader will need time to work out the path forward for IBS. He hopes they will defend IBS’ original goals and establish a better relationship with the government than the current IBS administration. “It’s easy to damage IBS,” he says.

Nature 573, 174-175 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02363-4

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 11 September 2019: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong affiliation for Philip Kim.

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