[VIEWPOINT]Impatience hurts our researchers

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[VIEWPOINT]Impatience hurts our researchers

The old saying that goes, "Brazier in summer and fan in the winter" has many meanings. Wang Chung, a liberal ideologist of the Eastern Han Dynasty in China, first used the saying in a positive sense, meaning that there is nothing useless. Wet things can be dried in the summer with a brazier, and a fan kindles the fire in the winter. Nowadays, the term is used to refer to things that are not pertinent or things that are not fit. Or the term refers to storing something up for a rainy day or devising a far-reaching policy in preparation for the time it will be needed.

I personally prefer the latter interpretation. Unlike modern management techniques and their "just in time" focus, the brazier and the fan suggest that a step backward can in fact be a step forward.

Recently a company chairman said, "We may meet a crisis if we become conceited," after his firm reported record profits. He told his employees, "Be prepared for what you will be doing five or ten years from now," and demanded more rigorous reform and more investment.

The chairman is a good example of the truth of the saying, but most Koreans look for fans in the summer and huddle around the brazier in the winter. They follow the general drift of the current without much thinking, and as a result we see surgery on children to lengthen their tongues so they can pronounce English better. Koreans are world leaders in frequently replacing durable goods, like cars and refrigerators. Rhee In-je, a presidential candidate, saw his second try for a party's presidential nomination go down the drain. Five years ago, his decision to reject his defeat for his party's nomination and run as an independent candidate resulted in his former party's defeat. His experience in this year's primaries suggests that his defiant decision five years ago was shortsighted.

The criticism of the Brain Korea 21 program that has intermittently been raised by civic groups and the continuous demand by the public for quick visible results is connected with Korean impatience. Needless to say, some mistakes that have been found during the initial stages of the program must be straightened out. But the government investment in research and development, including the Brain Korea 21 program, should be expanded. In a knowledge-based society, the wealth of a nation depends on how well we can accumulate knowledge, develop new techniques and turn the knowledge and know-how into expanded production.

Research and development investments can easily be ignored by the market and the government.

First, since research and development create a product that is widely available, a rational economic actor has the tendency to be a "free rider." If research and development were left entirely to the market, an economy could not acquire the knowledge and technology necessary for the society.

Since the duration of research and development activities is long, such investments are not appealing to politicians, whose outlook and terms are limited. They prefer expenditures that have quick results.

And finally, research and development results are difficult to measure. That is why the government prefers to invest in state-run construction projects that have visible results.

That general disinclination to invest in research and development is showing up now in Korea. Although the ratio of investment in research and development to gross domestic product has been gradually increasing, it is still small compared with such investment in Japan and the United States. In addition, only about 25 percent of the government's budget for research and development actually finds its way into investments. Although three-quarters of researchers work at universities, and 80 percent of published science papers are written by university researchers, Seoul provides only about 22 percent of the funding for that work. Compared with other governments' support for university research labs, the Korean government is stingy.

The funding drought has reduced the research capabilities of our schools, and the incubation of the next generation of scholars has become a job for foreign schools. Korea is reduced to being a knowledge importer.

The government's passive investment policy is the starting point in blocking national competitiveness and development of scientific technology.

The production of dissertations from Korean universities in scientific journals has increased because of the Brain Korea 21 program, but the increase is not enough to keep us at the cutting edge of technology. The program can play an essential role for our future if investment is concentrated in world-leading technologies that we can exploit.


The writer is a professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University.

by Bahk Jae-wan

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