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Korea Research Chief Espouses "Free to Fail" Culture

Earlier this summer, South Korea merged three science agencies to form the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF). The new body will control a $2 billion pot of money, roughly 20% of the government’s annual R&D spending. Science recently caught up with NRF’s first president, computer scientist Chan-Mo Park.

Q: By any measure, Korea is a technology powerhouse, but its achievements have come more from emulation than innovation. How will NRF change that?

C.M.P.: High-risk, high-return projects will have higher priority. Up to now, a researcher who has experienced a failure in research had a big disadvantage in applying new projects. But we will change this practice.

Q: NRF intends to promote a “free-to-fail culture.” What does that mean?

C.M.P.: If a researcher fails in achieving the original goal of a project, the reason for the failure will be examined and evaluated carefully to judge the researcher’s capability. If success is always 100% guaranteed, it is not a research project in my mind. By allowing a free-to-fail culture, researchers can pursue more creative and higher-risk projects.

Q: Your foundation intends to select projects dealing with groundbreaking ideas or new fields without external evaluation. Why bypass peer review?

C.M.P.: This policy is to attract researchers to propose creative and bold emerging projects that would be difficult to be selected by conventional evaluation methods such as peer review. About 5% of research grants will be used for this purpose.

Credit: Courtesy of Chan-Mo Park