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[Outlook] Penny-pinching on science

Our country has produced good mobile phones, but it hasn’t developed technology on its own.

Apr 01,2009
The science community believes that the science and technology policy has been adrift since the incumbent administration took office. Now, presented with the contents of the supplementary budget, it has been disappointed once again.

The government has maintained that the key to overcoming the economic crisis is in science and technology, particularly research and developments, and promised to increase its investment in the sector considerably.

But in the supplementary budget, the money set aside for research accounts for a mere 0.4 percent. The extra budget also showed that research and development of applicable technology that yields short-term results, rather than more basic technology, are regarded as more important.

The science community is worried that if the economy worsens, investment in research will shrink. Those concerns now feel much more justified.

In February, the GSMA Mobile World Congress was held in Barcelona, Spain, and Korean mobile companies presented solar-powered mobile phones. These mobiles have solar panels attached, so they can be charged anywhere there is sunlight. As other countries including China are also starting to manufacture these phones, fierce competition is expected in the market.

The development of solar photovoltaic power generation dates back to the 19th century. In 1839, the French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel observed the photoelectric effect of light. In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritz produced the first large-scale solar cell. In 1905, Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect with the photon theory of light and won the Nobel Prize for Physics for the theory.

In the United States, research on solar photovoltaic power generation has continued at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. In 1958, the country launched the first solar-powered satellite, Vanguard I.

In Japan, the government has led the so-called Sunshine Project since 1974, which has included support for research into solar photovoltaic power generation, making the country the frontrunner in the field.

On March 18, the Japanese government unveiled a plan to use the solar power industry as a new engine for economic growth. It plans to nurture the sector to grow to some 143 trillion won ($102 billion) and create 110,000 new jobs in the field by 2020 in order to become the leader in the global market.

For now, out of the world’s 16,000 gigawatt electric power consumption, only 4 gigawatts are produced by solar power. But the solar power market is expected to have grown larger than the semiconductor market by 2020.

As seen in the course of the development of solar power, decades of continuous research form a foundation for new technology to be applied to everyday life. Advanced countries such as the United States and Japan dominate the technology market in the world probably because they have long invested in research in basic science.

The United States and Japan are increasing their support for such research. U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to double the budget for research and development for the next 10 years, train young researchers and foster research in basic science. During his campaign, he earned the support of 61 American Nobel Prize laureates because of his firm stance on such research.

Japan, a country that produced four Nobel Prize winners last year, declared 2009 to be a year in which to enhance basic science. The idea is to build a foundation for boosting competitiveness by supporting basic science research and training creative human resources.

Our country has produced good mobile phones but as it hasn’t developed technology on its own; trillions of won has drained out of the country in the form of fees. We must not let this continue.

According to a report by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology from December last year, out of 364 information, electronics, communications, energy, nano and new materials technologies, Korea does not have even a single world’s best. This situation is not expected to change over the next five years.

A country needs to produce the world’s best or first technology to enhance its global competitiveness. The administration must actively invest in research in basic science to develop creative innovation. Those who work in the science and technology field must show self-confidence and present the people with hope for a better future.

We must work harder on this if we truly want to win a Nobel Prize.


The writer is a professor of mathematics at Yonsei University and representative of the Citizens’ Coalition for Scientific Society. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Min Kyung-chan



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