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Time to innovate our R&D system

Feb 19,2018
Lately, the Korea R&D paradox is widely discussed, as the research outcomes fail to function as innovative engines when the R&D investment to GDP is at the world’s highest level. Why do we self-deridingly lament that innovation is absent in Korea, even though we attained the miracle of the Han River based on science and technology?

Evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen explained the reasons for extinction of 99 percent of the organisms that existed on the earth with the law of constant extinction. Organisms that are relatively slow to evolve go extinct in the end regardless of its rate of evolution. The R&D innovation system of a country is not much different. In the infinite technology competition where only the best survive, failing to evolve faster than other competitors means extinction.

One of the cases that is often mentioned as having innovative R&D is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) under the Department of Defense. Historically, state-initiated R&D did not produce disruptive and innovative results that can be seen in Silicon Valley. However, Darpa has garnered much attention with a series of innovations such as internet, stealth aircraft, GPS and the da Vinci robot.

What is the essence of Darpa’s success? I think it is the goal-oriented approach on nearly impossible challenges. The defiant research is the paradoxical approach that breaks the conventional mindset that setting a specific goal is itself a challenge. Darpa’s notable outcomes are products of defiant challenges meeting creative ideas of the private sector. Not all state-run R&D can be, or need to be, operated this way, but the spirit will certainly put new inspiration on the current state-funded R&Ds that pursue gradual improvement of existing technologies and knowledge.

*President of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology

Lee Byung-kwon