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New plan seeks future Korean Nobel laureates

SNU initiates generous research fund to help professors attain more

Apr 02,2016
The main entrance to the campus of Seoul National University in Sillim-dong, Gwanak District, southern Seoul. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
Seoul National University (SNU) announced Sunday that starting from the second half of 2016, it is planning to grant annual research funds of 100 million won ($87,000) per person for 10 years to selected professors in their 30s and 40s. It is estimated the project will cost the university over 20 billion won.

“Currently, professors doing research at Seoul National University and other Korean universities are stuck doing one-off projects just for the research subsidies,” said Sung Nak-in, president of SNU. “Our goal is to create an environment where professors can focus on research without having to fret over monetary issues.”

The project is expected to have a positive impact on professors’ personal lives as well as the type of research professors can pursue.

“Many professors are preoccupied with writing for famous research journals in order to guarantee their tenure until retirement,” said a professor from SNU’s science department. “This project will be of great help to those who want to conduct innovative research.”

The university will initially select a maximum of 20 professors, followed by an additional 10 professors every year. Sung spoke last Friday with Aaron Ciechanover, the 69-year-old Nobel laureate in chemistry who teaches at SNU, about ways to support emerging scholars.

According to an authority from SNU, Ciechanover said in order for SNU to produce Nobel Prize winners, it should first provide a research environment in which professors don’t have to worry about showing immediate results.

Despite being Korea’s top-ranking university, none of SNU’s graduates or researching faculty members have ever won a Nobel Prize. In contrast, 142 of Harvard’s graduates or researching faculty members have won the award, while the University of Tokyo has produced 12.

According to the 2015-16 World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education, a weekly magazine based in London, SNU ranked 85th. This was far behind other prominent Asian universities, including the University of Tokyo, which was 43rd, Peking University, which was 42nd, and the National University of Singapore, which was ranked 26th.

“Prof. Shuji Nakamura from Japan received a Nobel Prize after receiving support from a university in the United States,” Sung said. “This project is absolutely necessary to avoid such instances, in which a professor with great potential is lured away by foreign countries.”

Nakamura earned his master’s degree in electronic engineering from the University of Tokushima and worked as a researcher for Nichia Corporation, a Japanese engineering and manufacturing company.

Despite his Japanese roots, Nakamura moved to the United States for more research funding as Nichia declined to provide further subsidies for his work.

In 1999, Nakamura became a professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He became an American citizen in 2000. Then, in 2014, he won the Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the light-emitting diode, or LED. This is the type of scenario Sung wants to avoid.

The project will not be restricted to scientific endeavors, either.

As one SNU official commented, “to allow scholars from the humanities and sociology department to conduct in-depth studies on one specific subject for 10 years, without minding the cost, Seoul National University is planning to include them in the project as well.”

BY BAEK SOO-JIN, KIM POGNEE [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]


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