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EDITORIAL: Key to new science council’s success

The government on Wednesday inaugurated the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), a ministry-level Cabinet council, making it a top government agency in guiding the nation’s development in science and technology. The council is intended to play an essential role in Taiwan’s industrial transformation and technological innovations. Its establishment means the reorganization of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), which was set up in March 2014, with former minister of science and technology Wu Tsung-tsong (吳政忠) heading the new agency.

It also signals the organizational evolution of a policymaking bureaucracy for science and technology development dating back to 1959, when the Guidelines for the Long-term Development of Science (國家長期發展科學計畫綱領) were passed to improve the basic sciences and lay the groundwork for a solid research environment. That same year, the government established the National Long-Term Science Development Committee to oversee research organization planning and tertiary education. It was renamed the National Science Council (NSC) in 1969, before being restructured into the MOST in 2014.

Over the past seven decades, the government agency responsible for promoting science and technology development has undergone several changes in terms of organizational structure and function to align with the nation’s development needs at a given time. For example, the NSC was tasked with promoting basic research and supporting academic research, as well as formulating policies and developing science parks. In 2014, it was transformed into the MOST to connect academic research and industrial development.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the Ministry of Economic Affairs has also made significant contributions over the years, helping to improve the applied research and technological capabilities of local industries, while the Cabinet-level National Development Council has of late become a major force supporting the development of local technology start-ups in Taiwan. Unfortunately, to meet their goals and vie for government resources, competition between the agencies has for years fomented tensions among them.

Due to the growing importance of science and technology development to the nation’s economic growth, government agencies need greater cross-departmental and inter-ministerial cooperation, and the appointment of Wu, a minister without portfolio, as NSTC head indicates the government’s desire to have him coordinate resource allocation across ministries and implement major science and technology policies.

Speaking at the inaugural ceremony, Wu said the new council would draft science and technology policies, support basic research, improve science parks, promote sustainable development and cultivate talent. He also said that precision healthcare, smart medicare, electric vehicles and the space industry are among the key sectors the government aims to focus on. However, for Wu to succeed in his job, the NSTC needs to integrate functions that were previously in the domain of other agencies. In addition to its role in policy formulation, the new council must also coordinate, evaluate and supervise the execution of plans initiated by other agencies. In a nutshell, this is about efficiency and bureaucratic flexibility.

The council should avoid making the same mistake its predecessor did over the past eight years: keeping the ratio of basic research spending to overall technological research and development spending below 10 percent. The nation’s long-term competitiveness could be undermined by a weak commitment to basic research. Funding for basic research in other major economies generally accounts for 10 percent or more of their national research and development budgets to ensure sustained research in science and technology.

Continuing to lag far behind other advanced countries in this regard would only make Taiwan’s goal of becoming a scientific and technological innovation power more far-fetched.

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