[VIEWPOINT]The Basic Sciences Must Be Embraced

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[VIEWPOINT]The Basic Sciences Must Be Embraced

National expenditures on science and technology have gradually increased, and the government budget related to science and technology now accounts for 2.8 percent of the national budget.

Levels of research and education in basic science, while not yet satisfactory, have improved. Nevertheless, concern about the state of basic science has increased. It seems that the basic sciences are entering a crisis.

In the 1970s the first experimental attempt at recruiting students by their general field of study, and not by a particular major, was made. It was a failure, but universities recently introduced such a system again.

This has led to a big drop in the number of basic science major applicants. Less than 30 percent of the high school students who applied for last year's Scholastic Ability Test went on to apply for basic science majors, because their chances of applying for other fields of science were better thanks to the new enrollment system.

It appears young people are turning away in droves from an area that will doubtless be in great demand in the future. But what is even more serious is that a negative perception of modern science is becoming widespread in our society. The basic sciences were first widely introduced to Koreans in the 1960s, when the government pushed a policy of establishing a country with advanced science and technology. The expansion was driven by the idea that basic science was a useful means of building the economy. That idea has now lost its power.

First, too much emphasis was placed on the practical applications of science, which led to the distinction between basic science and applied science becoming blurred and to basic science being less valued because of its "theoretical" nature.

As the inherent value of basic science started being overlooked, basic science began to be blamed for the inevitable misuses and abuses of technology. Applied science, once considered the trusted partner of basic science, became estranged from basic science, focusing on productivity and efficiency. This estrangement meant that applied scientists became loath to share the profits of their work to reinvest in the basic sciences. This myopia led in one instance to a memorable furor at Seoul National University.

Our society needs to recognize the inherent value of basic science. The historical fact that science laid the foundations for humanities and philosophy by exploring the very essence of nature and humanity needs to be emphasized. Scientists such as Nicolaus Copernicus, who discovered that the earth orbits the sun, had a truly revolutionary impact on public perceptions of nature, at that time shrouded in myth and superstition.

To advance our world view, we need not only philosophers but scientists. Scholars of humanities without a grounding in science are missing some basic skills, just as are scientists without a grounding in philosophy. Therein lies the reason why we must demolish the wall that exists between basic science and humanities.

Basic science, like literature and arts, has cultural functions that enrich our minds. Arts and literature that are anti-scientific are not far from being blindly superstitious. The genuine development and evolution of culture only comes when literature, the arts and sciences work in harmony.

Even in this age of globalization, large investments in basic sciences must be sustained. Though expensive, investment in this area is not a luxury to be overlooked. The spread of a scientific mindset in our society, which comes from promoting science, is as important as science's practical or profitable results. And science cannot be profitable by simply observing what others do.

A truly knowledge-based society is only possible when society recognizes the genuine twin values of basic science and humanities. "Future technology" without foundation might bring economic benefits, but will be nothing but an instrument for the new rich to amass more wealth.


The writer is professor of chemistry at Sogang University.

by Lee Duck-hwan

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