The South Korean university leader at the centre of a government investigation has said that research institutions in the country still need to fight for their freedom but that his ordeal could pave the way for improved international collaboration.
The Ministry of Science demanded last year that the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) suspend Shin Sung-chul, its president, after alleging that he embezzled public research funds in his previous job as leader of the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST). The case remains unresolved.
One of the allegations centred on payments that Professor Shin made to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California to secure South Korean scientists’ access to one of its facilities.
Professor Shin told Times Higher Education that he stood by his decision to “invest funding” in the collaboration, saying that it “turned out to be a very successful project” that produced more than 1,000 research papers.
“It’s a decision [for] a university president”, not a government, he added.
Professor Shin said that the “misunderstanding” was “not over yet” but “should be cleared in the near future”, and he was hopeful that the disagreement “might be a good thing for future collaborations between Korea and foreign countries”.
“International collaboration is not that common for the Korean government and Korean scientists yet. They might need some time to understand this international collaboration,” he said. “You have to pay some money to use international facilities. That’s quite normal for scientists, but it’s not understood by the government.”
Experts had claimed that the effort to remove Professor Shin, who was hired to lead KAIST in 2017 under the previous administration, was the latest episode in a long tradition of political interference in university governance and one that risked destroying trust between scientists and the government and slowing the nation’s research progress.
Professor Shin said that government-driven policy and industry-funded research had enabled Korea to make “miraculous progress” over the past 50 years, but now that the country had advanced, universities required autonomy and money for curiosity-driven research to “compete with the best countries”.
He said that the government was starting to “transition from its role as a control tower to becoming a supporting tower”, highlighting that KAIST had received block funding for research, as opposed to funding for specific projects, for the first time this year. Nevertheless, he added, “it’s still a struggle over how much freedom we have between government and universities”.
“From next year, we’re implementing a cross-disciplinary major for our undergraduate programme. We should have the autonomy [to do this], but we have to discuss it with the government…It took one year to pressure them,” Professor Shin said.