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[Editorial] Keep politics out of science

Suspension of KAIST president put on hold, but heads of other institutes have stepped down

The scientific community is engulfed in a controversy over what appears to be a politically motivated purge of scientists.

On Friday, the board of trustees of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology put off a decision over whether to suspend KAIST President Shin Sung-chul, whom the government accuses of embezzlement and breach of trust.

The Ministry of Science and ICT alleges that Shin made illegal payments to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California while serving as president of the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology, before joining KAIST. The payments were part of a deal giving scientists at South Korean universities access to Berkeley’s facilities. The ministry also alleges that some of the fees were unfairly paid to a former student of Shin’s.

Many researchers oppose the suspension of Shin, suspecting a politically motivated attempt to remove him. A distinguished US laboratory is involved, and the international science community is paying attention to the case. The prestige of Korea’s scientific establishment has diminished as a result of the scandal. But a rush to judgment must be avoided.

Above all, the allegations against Shin have not yet been proved true. The ministry asked the chair of the KAIST board to suspend him just two days after referring the case to the prosecution. The investigation has not yet begun, and still the ministry rushed to request his suspension. This gives the impression that the ministry is in a hurry to remove him.

Domestic scientists are on Shin’s side, though. More than 800 researchers have signed a petition against his suspension. The Citizens’ Coalition for Scientific Society, a science-focused civic group, has also spoken out against it. The group expressed concerns that any intervention by political power in the field of science would ruin what should be an autonomous and creative research environment.

The Berkeley Lab sent a letter to the ministry, explaining that the agreement with the DGIST had been executed legally. The ministry later said the deal violated a domestic law on “state” contracts, even if it did not violate any laws governing private contracts. That sounds like a less-than-convincing excuse to find fault with Shin at any cost.

The ministry emphasizes that it has followed legitimate procedures, but the petition signed by hundreds of researchers, the civic group’s statement of support and the Berkeley Lab’s letter suggest otherwise.

The case has drawn international attention, too. Nature, a renowned scientific journal, reported the news. In an online post Dec. 13, it reported that some researchers see the KAIST affair as part of an ongoing political purge of public science institutes by the liberal Moon Jae-in administration.

Separately from the Shin case, the ministry audited the DGIST and found misdeeds by President Son Sang-hyuk, Shin’s successor, including the misallocation of research funds. Though the DGIST decided to cut his pay for three months as punishment, Son stepped down late last month.

Since the inception of the Moon administration, 11 heads of state-run research institutes, including Son, have resigned in the middle of their terms. All had been appointed during the days of former President Park Geun-hye.

Most of these scientists are said to have succumbed to persistent pressure to resign. Some bucked, only to step down when their institutions suffered as a result of being audited by the government.

Research institutes are organizations that have nothing to do with politics. However, these leaders stepped down under apparent pressure and new leaders were appointed after the change of government. This amounts to the government dividing the science community into “us and them.” It is shameless to talk about science and technology policies in a situation like this.

The government must take researchers’ voices seriously. Irregularities must be eradicated, but those entrusted with this task must avoid listening only when they want to. Above all else, they must not regard leadership posts at research institutes as political trophies.

The US, Japan, China and other powers are accelerating research to conquer scientific frontiers in areas such as artificial intelligence and space exploration. Korea will straggle behind them if it does not resolve conflicts over the leadership of research institutes.

KAIST is a hotbed of Korea’s top scientists. Stable, consistent leadership is essential to cultivating scientific talent. The government must ensure that KAIST retains its independence.