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South Korea’s ‘Nobel prize project’ gets overhaul

The Institute for Basic Science has been rocked by accusations of financial mismanagement over the past year.

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Researchers at the Center for Theoretical Physics of the Universe at a chalkboard

Pay grades will rise for researchers at South Korea's Institute for Basic Science under reforms.Credit: Institute for Basic Science

The Institute for Basic Science — South Korea’s flagship basic-research organization — is being restructured after a year of scandals and criticism, including allegations of misappropriated funds and nepotism.

The nation’s science ministry announced on 10 September that the reform measures will include changes to the institute’s administrative structure, its purchasing system and its pay grades.

The Institute for Basic Science (IBS) was founded in 2011, and is modelled on the Max Planck Society in Germany and RIKEN in Japan. It is often referred to as South Korea’s ‘Nobel prize project’ — an attempt to win the country’s first scientific Nobel.

But in the past year, the organization has been rocked by financial-mismanagement allegations against several IBS centres that have been raised in the media and parliamentary hearings. As a result, 28 of the institute’s 30 centres have been audited in a number of government investigations, the most recent of which ran until August. The science ministry said the results of the audits informed the reorganization.

As part of the reforms, 97 members of administrative staff from 19 centres will be consolidated into 5 administration centres. These include centres at IBS headquarters in Daejeon, as well as on university campuses at KAIST in Daejeon, the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and the Pohang University of Science and Technology. This is intended to improve administrative efficiency and to allow centre directors to focus on research.

But Andreas Heinrich, director of the IBS Center for Quantum Nanoscience in Seoul, thinks that moving support staff away from research centres will add more layers of administration. “Less autonomy means less creativity,” he says.

Administrative staff need to attend scientific meetings to understand the centre’s activities and to ensure that solutions to any problems follow IBS regulations, says Yannis Semertzidis, director of the IBS Center for Axion and Precision Physics Research at KAIST.

The reforms will also see researchers’ minimum salaries increase over time. And to further reduce the administrative burden on directors, a central purchasing system will be introduced to handle frequently bought commodities such as materials, reagents and office supplies.

The nation’s new science minister, Choi Ki-young, was inaugurated on 10 September, after being appointed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. In remarks after his inauguration, Choi vowed to “spare no investment in basic science”, saying it would protect against an uncertain future.

Calls for further investment in basic science in South Korea have grown amid an escalating trade dispute with Japan that threatens to disrupt supplies of key semiconductor components. Basic science, many say, can help to ensure that South Korea has its own supply chain, giving it technological independence.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02722-1

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 11 September 2019: This story has been updated to include comments from Andreas Heinrich and Yannis Semertzidis.

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