The government's recent decision to pick Daedeok in Daejeon City, 64 kilometers southwest of Seoul, as the site for Korea's new international science-business belt, could accelerate the development of the nation's basic science. Education, Science and Technology Minister Lee Ju-ho announced on May 16 that Daedeok will be home to the National Basic Science Institute and a particle accelerator, which are key research facilities in the multi-billion dollar project.
It is the nation's biggest basic science project. Considering the present level of Korea's basic science, the government's attempt to build the National Basic Science Institute is regarded as a very encouraging one. In particular, it is laudable as the proposed science belt modeled after Japan's RIKEN and Germany's Max Planck Society, which have produced nine and 19 Nobel laureates in natural science, respectively. Korea has failed to produce just one.
Cheongwon, Yeongi and Cheonan, all in the nearby Chungcheong provinces, have been selected to carry out associated research and development (R&D), and the training of experts. Of the 50 research bases to be established under the national science belt project, 25 will be housed in Daedeok, while the rest will be distributed in North Gyeongsang Province, Daegu and Gwangju City, which had contested to become the main base of the science belt.
As far as this project is concerned, the focus should not be on balanced economic growth among different provincial regions, but on strengthening competitiveness of basic science at a national level. Related to this project, President Lee Myung-bak also said on May 17 that research and development special zones in Daedeok, Daegu and Gwangju should be connected and closely cooperate with each other through regional networks.
Noting that the science belt is the outpost of opening and fusion and a delivery room for development of original technology, Lee said that the nation should enter the ranks of advanced countries in real terms, beyond industrialization. However, the selection result brought about fierce repercussions from the province and the cities, which argued the selection was made under political considerations rather than through fair and objective assessments.
It has also attracted criticism that the sites of the science belt were split under political considerations, although the government said the selection process was carried out through fair and objective assessments. In line with this, some residents of Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces and their political representatives shaved their heads and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins in fierce protest to the government's decision to build the science belt in the central South Chungcheong Province. Some angry lawmakers threatened a civil disobedience movement.
Such turmoil started last year when President Lee tried in vain to nullify a plan to build an administrative capital in the Chungcheong Province, a campaign pledge first made by former President Roh Moo-hyun and succeeded by Lee to win the hearts of the people in the central area.
In April, the government also withheld its plan to build a new international airport in Gyengsang area, citing reasons of insufficient economic feasibility, after Busan and an alliance of Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province mounted fierce protests to bring it to Gadeok Island and Miryang, respectively. Miryang is part of the South Gyeongsang Province, but the northerners favored it for its easy access from Daegu.
Citizens in the North Jeolla Province also protested strongly against the government's decision to relocate the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) to South Gyeongsang Province. Of course, not all of these decisions were wrong, but many of them seem to have been made by political interests instead of economic principles, driving the whole country into a huge protest site.
Accordingly, the government needs to consider introducing an open bidding system for major national projects to remove such controversy on fairness and objectivity in the course of selection.
The Seoul government is also required to learn from France's example, which made it a rule for regional governments hoping to attract certain facilities to finance most of the project costs with the central government making up the remaining budget requirements.
It goes without saying that the process should be focused on a long-term national blueprint on major infrastructure facilities worked out by experts, not by politicians. And, if the decision was made through a proper procedure, the people should accept the final results and politicians should refrain from using voters' regionalism for their own interests.
Meanwhile, the government boosted the budget for the international science business belt project to KRW 5.2 trillion (US$ 4.7 billion), up KRW1.7 trillion from the 2009 blueprint, which will be injected in the next seven years. Critics suspect the increased budget will go to the regions that did not get the main base.
In the process of spending the budget, the government should reject any political or regional considerations and purely stick to scientific and economic principles. State projects should be carried out without being affected by political influences and under fair processes that are faithful to the principles. Political considerations and regional selfishness will not serve the national interest.
Now the government should push the multi-billion dollar national project with enthusiasm and sincerity based on rational principles, and without any political consideration. It is the only way for Korea to become an advanced country in science.