South Korea becomes global leader in innovation through investment in research, systemic reform and talent mobility

Nature Index 2020 South Korea, published in the May 28 issue of Nature, investigates South Korea’s strategy to become a “first mover” by investing in basic research grants and original discoveries.

Seoul | Sydney, 27 May 2020

South Korea’s spending on research and development as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) is the second highest worldwide, being topped only by Israel. Between 2000 and 2018, research and development funding grew from 2.1% of GDP in 2000 to more than 4.5%. The nation’s goal to become a “first mover” instead of simply a “fast follower” to maintain economic growth is reflected in this investment, and is the focus of Nature Index 2020 South Korea.

According to the Nature Index, South Korea has retained its position in the top 10 countries in terms of high quality research output, as measured by the key metric “Share” over the past four years. Aside from the sustained investment in research and development, South Korea has also demonstrated growth in collaboration, in particular with China. In 2018, China displaced Japan as South Korea’s second-most collaborative partner in the index, after the United States.

This special report demonstrates how a concerted government push to make South Korea an innovation leader, backed by strong investment and systemic reform, has brought rapid and long-lasting results. The South Korean government’s systematic approach has been the crucial factor in creating an innovative economy that turns ideas from laboratories into products and industries. Nature Index 2020 South Korea also looks at how the Institute for Basic Science network will fare under increased scrutiny, and considers what’s in store for the nation as a new generation of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity businesses mature. South Korea’s scientific landscape is becoming more diverse and more productive, with an influx of globally mobile researchers since 2017. These researchers have been found to be 50% more productive than other academics in the country.

David Swinbanks, Founder of the Nature Index, said: “South Korea’s ‘top-down’ planning forged the strong ties between government, academia and industry that helped it become a global leader in information and communication technologies and in innovation generally. The top-down approach played a key role for example in the nation’s ability to quickly develop and produce diagnostic kits for COVID-19.”

The creativity and determination demonstrated by the country’s post-war economic and scientific transformation point to further success ahead. It is encouraging to see governmental initiatives to promote basic as well as applied research aimed at transitioning South Korea from a ‘fast follower’ to a ‘first mover.’”

Further features of this special report include: league tables of South Korean Institutions listed by Share; graphics showing South Korea’s position among the leading scientific nations and its notable strength in the physical sciences; the leading research collaborators with tech giant, Samsung; and the South Korean institutions attracting the most talent from overseas.

Note: The Nature Index is one indicator of institutional research performance. The metrics of Count and Share used to order Nature Index listings are based on an institution’s or country’s publication output in 82 natural science journals, selected on reputation by an independent panel of leading scientists in their fields (see below). The Nature Index recognises that many other factors must be taken into account when considering research quality and institutional performance; Nature Index metrics alone should not be used to assess institutions or individuals. Nature Index data and methods are transparent and available under a creative commons license at

Published: 27 May 2020


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