One of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign promises is to transform South Korea into a leader in STEM research. The promise follows decades of presidential efforts to promote science and technology as part of the broader economic and social development plans. Presidents have come and gone, but each effort has built on the other, leaving the country in a strong position to achieve the president-elect’s promise.

The quantification of academic activity has produced various indices of research output in English. One of the most prestigious is the Nature Index, a measure of locations and institutions producing high-quality research according to publication outputs in 82 selected noted scientific journals. By this measure in 2020, South Korea ranks eighth, sitting between Canada and Switzerland. The US, China, and Germany hold the top three spots. Institutional rankings have the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Harvard, and the Max Planck Society in the top three spots with Seoul National University, the highest-ranking Korean institution, coming in 58th and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology a close 64th.

A deeper dig into the data reveals some interesting trends. In chemistry, for example, South Korea is sandwiched at sixth between the UK and France. In physical sciences, the country sits at sixth between Japan and France. In earth and environmental sciences, the country falls to the 13th and, in life sciences, to 14th. This suggests weakness in fields that have received the greatest need in recent years.

A look at 2020 data from the SCImago Journal & Country Rank based on information in the Scopus database show similar trends. Chinese sources rank first and US sources second while South Korea comes in at 14th. By h-index, an author-level rank of scholarly output and performance, the US ranks first, followed by the UK and Germany; South Korea drops to 17th. This ranking includes humanities and social science fields where the ratio of papers written in Korean is higher. Among the many subfields, South Korea ranks highest in chemistry and computer science.

South Korean university rankings, which have received more attention in the domestic media, offer yet another perspective. Among widely cited rankings, the Academic Ranking of World Universities developed by Shanghai Jiao Tong University focuses mostly heavily on research output. The 2021 rankings show Harvard, Stanford, and Cambridge in the top three spots, while SNU ranks in the 101-150 group. Together with KAIST, Hanyang, Korea, Sungkyunkwan and Yonsei universities all fall in the 201-300 group.

Taken together, the data suggest that researchers are productive but that their work lags in influence. This helps explain why rankings, particularly research rankings, for South Korean universities are low compared to population and level of economic and social development. This may also explain why a South Korean scientist has yet to receive a Nobel Prize.

To reach Yoon’s goals, policy makers need to invest heavily in important fields of research where the country currently lags. The pandemic has shown the importance of medical research, but South Korea remains weak in this field. The National Institutes of Health in the US, for example, ranks 15th in the Nature Index. Other health research centers in France, Germany, Italy, and the US make the rankings. Dependency on foreign vaccines has raised public awareness of the need for investing more in medical science.

Another area of weakness is environmental science. Dealing with climate change will require intense research not just in renewable energy but also remediation technology. Investing heavily in this field will also help strengthen the country’s standing in fields, such as chemistry where it is already strong. Weakness in this field may help explain South Korea’s continued dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Increasing funding for universities would be the obvious place to begin, but it may not be the best use of the government’s money. Over the past 20 years, the government has increased funding for universities, partly with the hope of raising their international profile. The increased investment has no doubt helped researchers, but university research rankings remain low.

Another approach would be to create a new comprehensive research institution out of existing and new institutions that can target, fund, and direct research more effectively than universities. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society and French National Center for Scientific Research, which hold three of the top four places in the Nature Index, are examples of this approach. Though daring, only a major structural shake-up in research will help meet the president-elect’s ambitious goals.


Robert Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island