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South Korea Aims to Boost Status as Science and Technology Powerhouse

SEOUL—South Korea is better plugged into the Internet than any other nation, and its economy is dominated by megacompanies like Samsung whose inexpensive consumer electronics are now sitting under millions of Christmas trees. By any measure, the country is a technology powerhouse—but its achievements have come more from emulation than innovation. A new program called the 577 Initiative aims to change that.

Each digit has significance. The "5" is a pledge to raise the percentage of GDP spent on R&D from 3.23% in 2006 to 5% in 2012. Part of that boost will come from the government, which plans to increase R&D spending by 50%, from $8.4 billion in 2008 to $12.6 billion in 2012. To hit the 5% target, the private sector must contribute three-quarters of total R&D spending; the government plans to roll out tax incentives to grease those wheels.

Money will be funneled to "7" major technology areas. South Korea's business-savvy president, Lee Myung-bak, spent 27 years at Hyundai Group, and he doesn't intend to neglect South Korea's cash cows: Its consumer electronics and automobile industries are 577's area number one. "Big science" is another category, including the country's space program, nuclear energy development, and military technologies such as next-generation weapons. So-called convergence technologies—melding disparate advances in, say, nanotechnology and robotics—comprise a third area.

That may sound like a tech-heavy agenda, but by 2012, half of the government's R&D budget will be spent on basic and fundamental research—up from the current 25.6%, says Park Chan-Mo, Lee's special adviser on S&T. "Basic research is very strongly emphasized," says Park, former president of Pohang University of Science and Technology. If all goes to plan, the funding pot for individual research grants will triple to more than $1 billion in 2012; the ratio of university science professors who receive basic research grants is expected to increase from 25% to 60%, and the ratio of researchers in their 20s and 30s who get such grants will increase from 18% to 25%.

These measures are intended to thrust South Korea into the top seven major S&T powers in the world—the second "7" in the initiative's name—as judged by criteria such as science citation index and international patent applications. Park says the country is now ranked number 12. Some elements of 577 were articulated by the previous government but not implemented, says Park. "We are taking action," he says.