Published online 19 November 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1090

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South Korean R&D budget to soar

Materials science and green technology should win large funding increases.

Myung-bak LeePresident Myung-bak Lee is promising increased research and development investment in South Korea.Kim Jae-hwan/AP Photo

South Korean researchers are celebrating promises by the government that the science budget will be dramatically increased to 5% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Choi Kyung-hwan, minister of knowledge economy, announced the 5% target on 16 November in a speech at the Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials in Daejeon. The target supports the campaign promises to raise the country's level of technology made by President Lee Myung-bak, who was elected in February 2008.

South Korea's research and development (R&D) budget already accounts for 3.37% of the country's GDP, one of the highest rates in the world. Choi said the government planned an annual 15% increase in R&D spending in an attempt to reach the final target by 2013. But because government funding accounts for only about a quarter of the R&D budget — the rest comes from industry — it might be difficult to mandate such an increase.

"It is possible, but I'm not very confident it will be achieved," says Oh Se-Jung, a condensed matter physicist at Seoul National University. "It will depend a lot on companies' R&D spending. With the current world economy, I'm not sure companies will spend so much on R&D, unless the government provides a lot of incentives."

Whether or not it hits the target, more money will flow into research. "The government considers R&D the only way to achieve international competitiveness at this stage," says Oh.

Green push

How this money will be spent has not been decided. South Korea focuses on familiar priority fields: information technology including semiconductors and display; energy and environment-related green technology; nanotechnology; and biotechnology. The environment has been an important issue for the young cabinet of Lee, former chief executive of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, and the government recently announced a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 4% from 2005 levels by 2020 — some 30% below what would be expected by 2020 under a 'business as usual' model.

"Consequently, I would say green technology will benefit most," says Hyeon Taeghwan, director of the National Creative Research Initiative Center for Oxide Nanocrystalline Materials at Seoul National University.

Materials research will get a boost too. In this week's speech, Choi unveiled plans for a 1 trillion won (US$865 million) programme to support research in "world premier materials". The goal is to create 10 such materials that will secure more than 30% of their total markets. Twenty candidate materials will be selected in January 2010, and 200 billion won rolled out to develop them over the next 3 years.

The move is meant to bolster some of South Korea's most powerful industries. Samsung and LG are world leaders in semiconductors, display screens and mobile phones, for example, and Hyundai is a prominent vehicle manufacturer.

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But Yu Young Moon, a researcher at the Korea Photonics Technology Institute in Gwangju, says that South Korea's level of technology in materials science is still overshadowed by Japan. "We are in the situation of import excess," he says.

"The major trade imbalance between Korea and Japan comes from parts and materials," says Hyeon. "Eventually we would like to supply Korean-made parts and materials to Korean companies." 

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  • #60080

    North Korea could really make a killing by manipulating the markets. For the price of a crappy old missile they can make millions in quick trades.I can't believe these companies would be stupid enough to offer reinsurance in North Korea. Its like offering life insurance to a self-admitted mob boss on his rank-and-file.

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