Korean innovation chief forced out after four days in the job

By on 16/08/2017
The campus of Seoul National University where 288 professors signed a statement demanding Park Ky-young resign (Image courtesy: Kwj2772).

The new head of South Korea’s innovation office has resigned just four days after being appointed, following public outrage over her alleged role in a scientific fraud scandal.

Park Ky-young stepped down as chief of the Science, Technology and Innovation Office (STIO) on Friday, after 288 professors at Seoul National University signed a statement demanding her resignation.

Park, a former biology professor at Sunchon National University, was appointed on Monday 7 August by South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in to spearhead a drive to boost technological innovation in the country.

Scientific scandal

But the appointment provoked an outcry from scientists and opposition politicians over Park’s link to the 2005 scandal in which leading stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk was accused of using fabricated data and embezzling research funds.

Despite mounting pressure, Park refused to resign on Thursday, the Korea Times reported. After apologising for failing to prevent the stem-cell scandal, she said she wanted to “pay the country back with my work” as chief innovation official.

She denied accusations that she had played a leading role in creating the fraudulent data, saying her error had simply been that of trusting Hwang too much.

Hwang was feted as “The Pride of Korea” and “Supreme Scientist” after he published a paper in the American journal Science claiming to have produced stem cells by cloning human embryos – a world first. His subsequent fall was equally dramatic.

Seoul National University dismissed the scientist after an investigation found he had fabricated data in the paper. A court later convicted Hwang of embezzling 380 million Korean won (US$700,000) in research funds and breaching bio-ethics laws to procure human eggs for his research.

A low grade from the professors

Park, who was one of 15 co-authors of the paper, was forced to resign as senior adviser to then-President Roh Moo-hyun when the scandal broke.

“At the time of the Hwang Woo-suk scandal in 2005, Park was the presidential science and technology secretary, a position that required her to take the most responsibility, but she never repented or apologised,” the professors said in their statement, released on Thursday, as reported by the Korea Herald.

“Should Professor Park hold on to the position, it would amount to exonerating Hwang Woo-suk and those protecting him. This would be ignoring the efforts that South Korea’s university and academic society puts into establishing research ethics. It would be a head-on affront to the science community,” the letter continued.

A qualified apology

When she stepped down on Friday, Park also issued a statement. “I once again apologise for disappointing the people and causing continuous controversies,” the Korea Herald reported her as saying. “I sincerely hope that the Science, Technology and Innovation Office performs its role as the nation’s science control tower and that my resignation may act as an opportunity for unity and development in science.”

However, Park again denied that she was to blame for the scandal. “I think it is unjust that I should be described as an accomplice in the case, just because I was in office at the time,” she said.

The resignation leaves President Moon’s drive to boost technological innovation in South Korea on hold, with planned staffing reshuffles and organisational changes at the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning suspended.

The STIO was set up to spearhead national advances in science and technology shortly after he assumed office in May, following the impeachment and dismissal of former President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges involving an aide.

South Korea has the highest spending on R&D of any developed country: 4.29% of GDP, according to the OECD.

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See also:

Canada tops new index of civil service effectiveness

EU exports to South Korea increase by 55% after bilateral trade deal

Korea is world leader in R&D spending, China ahead of EU, OECD data shows

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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