[OUTLOOK]We’re losing the technology raceThe aversion of students to science and technology majors has become a serious issue.
We should especially note that the scientific maturity of Germany and the affinity for science in Great Britain are products of longer-term promotional investments by governments in these fields.
When our economy was in a difficult situation about 20 years ago, more students applied to the science and technology departments at colleges than to the humanities at a ratio of about 7 to 3. Students believed that the science and technology fields guaranteed good employment opportunities because of government policies that valued those fields as driving forces for economic development.
Scientists and engineers also were respected by society because they contributed to Korea’s remarkable economic growth.
But that was then, and this is now. The rate of applications for humanities and sciences hasve reversed since the financial crisis of the late 1990s. As national income rose again after the crisis and students contemplated how difficult engineering and science curriculums could be, they again began drifting to the humanities ― and our national competitiveness will suffer for it.
A nation’s wealth is the aggregate value of production, including that of manufacturing industries. So if our schools cannot supply core industrial personnel, it could jeopardize the existence of those industries here and trigger another national crisis.
During the International Monetary Fund’s stewardship of our economy, the first target of corporate restructuring was engineers. Students began to choose graduate and postgraduate programs in seemingly more secure professions ― medical and Oriental physicians, for example, or pharmacists or lawyers.
Without increasing our technological strength, we cannot compete with China, which is in close pursuit of our national industrial development. Neither can we break through to the era of a $20,000 per capita income under these circumstances. College faculties as well as businesses should concentrate their efforts on improving technological strength.
We should not rely on the market alone to gather our resources for the coming era. Talented students predominantly choose medical and pharmaceutical majors, and regardless of their undergraduate specialty, they are obsessed with studying for the national judicial examination to become lawyers. The government cannot overlook this problem.
We need talented people in our manufacturing and technological industries, and the need is not just one invented by people who are scientists or engineers and want to move up the social scale. The government should come up with policies to promote the morale and treatment of engineers and scientists.
Some young scientists recently published excellent theses in famous academic journals. Most people interpret this achievement as the result of the concentration of talented students in the fields of science and technology in the 1980s. Such achievements also show that science and technology can come to fruition not through market principles but through medium- and long-term investments and through constant support to foster science and technology despite a national crisis.
The majority of public officials in advanced countries, including the United States, Japan and France, are experts, and particularly in China, all nine senior officials in the Commerce Ministry have science and technology backgrounds. But in Korea, how many graduates of science and technology departments hold positions in which they can actually make policy decisions?
There may be many reasons for avoiding the science and technology programs at universities, but I think the government’s unbalanced ill-treatment of science and technology graduates is also an important reason for the problem. Most ministers majored in the humanities, and even the heads of science- and technology-related divisions in the ministries rarely have a diploma on their walls showing their skills in those areas.
Just as King Sejong could accomplish brilliant achievements such as the creation of Hangeul and the invention of the sundial by appointing scientists and engineers in high positions, we have to focus on the increase of technological competitiveness in such leading-edge fields as information technology, biotechnology, environmental sciences and nanotechnology to lay a foundation for national development. This is even more so because we live in a small country with scarce natural resources.
The U. S. government has already set up a huge fund to establish human and physical infrastructure for research and development in semiconductors and biotechnology based on industry-school-research facility cooperation.
Japan has won Nobel prizes in science for the third consecutive year and has grown to be the large economic power in the world that it is because it has built a social atmosphere in which science and technology are valued. China can also strive to realize its potential to be the largest technological power in the world because it has done the same thing.
In order to make talented students prefer science and technology departments, both government and business should provide more opportunities for scientists and engineers to work in positions of authority and should genuinely recognize the importance of science and technology. I firmly believe that when more scientists and engineers participate in the government's policymaking, then national competitiveness can naturally take root strongly.
* The writer is president of Chungbuk National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Shin Bang-woong