Sir Paul Nurse FRS and Korean high school studentsA small piece of history was made last week when Sir Paul Nurse became the first serving President of the Royal Society to visit South Korea. He wasn’t the first Fellow to visit the country – that honour goes to Basil Hall, who visited nearly 200 years ago and provided one of the first descriptions of the country by a European. However, the choice of destination was not surprising when taking into account the country’s rapid progress in science and technology. It has been described by UNESCO as “probably the world’s most committed country to science, technology and innovation”. It has increased its R&D spending at the fastest rate in the OECD and invests relatively more on R&D than even Germany. Samsung alone spent over $10bn on R&D in 2013  – which, if it were a country, would put it on a par with Israel or Switzerland. This development has been even more remarkable when you consider that 60 years ago, South Korea was an impoverished nation emerging from the ruins of war.

The opportunities for UK science presented by South Korea’s progress are many. Yet there is much that can be done to strengthen our scientific links. For example, Korea’s closest collaborative ties, perhaps unsurprisingly for cultural and historical reasons, are with the US. Indeed, the US-Korea collaborative partnership is one of the top ten in the world for citation impact. Korea also has closer ties with its neighbours China and Japan than with the UK.

Identifying ways to improve collaboration between our countries was one of the main aims of Sir Paul’s visit. As well as meeting the Science Minister, Choi Mun Kee, and some of South Korea’s leading scientists and policymakers, Sir Paul also delivered two lectures at two of Korea’s leading universities, Seoul National University and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). He also met with the leaders of the ambitious new Institute for Basic Science, part of a major US$4.4bn project to develop an international science and business belt in Daejeon, to build on collaborative links established towards the end of last year.

Looking closer to home, the close correlation between South Korea’s extraordinary economic rise – from poverty to becoming the world’s 11th largest economy – and its consistent effort to create and maintain a strong science and technology capacity, is something that politicians in the UK would do well to heed in their ongoing efforts to revive Britain’s prosperity.

In his speech, Sir Paul quoted one of the Society’s most famous Fellows, Sir Isaac Newton, who said, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As Sir Paul went on to say, “many Koreans can relate to that phrase, given the remarkable achievements of previous and current generations in building this country up to become one of the world’s most technologically and economically advanced countries.” We hope that this visit will pave the way for closer engagement between the UK and what is arguably the most science-focussed nation in the world.