Boosting marine R&D
China made a large stride in space exploration by successfully conducting a manual docking between a manned spacecraft and an experimental orbiting lab module.
The feat, carried out by three Chinese astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, took China one step closer to its dream of building a space station by 2020.
On the same day, China made another technological breakthrough under the sea, which carried just as much, if not more, significance than the space docking exercise. Its manned submersible successfully dived to the depth of 7,020 meters in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.
The dive catapulted China into the ranks of the countries that have led the world in deep-diving technology to compete with the United States, Japan, France and Russia.
The sub, dubbed the Jiaolong, symbolizes China’s determination to catch up with advanced countries in ocean science and technology, a field that is gaining growing importance as mankind faces two tough challenges: climate change and resource depletion.
The ocean can help mankind meet the two interrelated challenges as it contains enormous quantities of renewable energy and natural resources. Yet harnessing these resources in a sustainable way requires an expansion of human knowledge of the oceans and development of technologies that can withstand the harsh conditions in deep water.
Hence, major countries of the world have been ratcheting up their investment in marine science and technology to accelerate commercial development of ocean resources.
China’s commitment to ocean research and exploration offers a lesson for Korea. China decided to develop the submersible in 2002 and has since rushed the project. To speed up its development, China used foreign parts and even outsourced its construction to a Russian company.
In contrast, Korea developed a manned submersible in 1986 that could dive to 250 meters under the sea. Yet it has since made no more attempts to go deeper.
Given that a country’s prowess in ocean science and technology can be measured by the depth it can reach under the sea, Korea’s track record in this field suggests the low level of its marine technology.
According to a marine technology road map presented by the government in December, Korea’s technology level in this field was 44.7 percent of the United States in 2008 and 52.2 percent in 2010. Korea aims to boost its technology level to 67 percent of the U.S. in 2015.
The road map shows Korea’s R&D spending on ocean science and technology has increased sharply in recent years. Between 2006 and 2011, it says, the government’s ocean-related research and development expenditure increased 21 percent a year, double the increase rate of the government’s overall R&D budget.
Yet the absolute amount of ocean-related R&D spending was small; in 2009, it totaled 400 billion won ($346 million), accounting for a mere 3.2 percent of the government’s entire R&D budget.
Furthermore, most of the R&D funds were poured into large infrastructure projects, such as the construction of marine science bases on Ieodo and in Antarctica. This left little money available for programs on ocean resource development or ocean environment.
To address this problem, the road map calls for the government to invest a total of 3.6 trillion won in ocean-related R&D from 2012 to 2020. It also lists 50 target technologies that need to be developed to tackle climate change, promote ocean industries, develop ocean resources and improve the ocean environment.
To reinvigorate marine R&D, the government is also promoting a reorganization of the state-run R&D institutes. For instance, the Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute will be significantly expanded and renamed as the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology starting July 1.
KIOST will have several research centers under its wing, including the existing Korea Polar Research Institute and the three proposed ones — one on ocean policy, another on shipbuilding and marine plant engineering and the third for commercialization of marine technologies.
The reform is late but well advised. But to help the institute function as expected, the government needs to improve the quality of its workforce by recruiting high-caliber researchers from abroad.
To tap into the great potential that the ocean holds, the government needs to increase investment in marine science and technology. But a more important task is to set up a powerful agency that can present and execute a well-formulated vision of ocean development.