[GLOBAL EYE]Scientists in labs, not ministriesKorea is not the only country to believe that science and technology is the key to the prosperity of the nation. Under the banner of becoming a first-class science power, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is leading efforts to reform the educational system to accommodate gifted children. In the United States, arguably the most advanced country in science and technology, Harvard University President Larry Summers has said, “Science and its implications are too important to leave to scientists ... in an increasingly technical era,” emphasizing the need to instill scientific thinking in all undergraduate students, not just science majors. Walkers want to run and runners want to fly.
In China, key government positions have been dominated by persons with science and technology backgrounds since Zhu Rongji took the lead in economic reforms more than 10 years ago. After a belated discovery that the neighborhood giant is already one step ahead, President Roh Moo-hyun appeared to be shocked and ordered that 30 percent of senior government posts be filled with science and technology experts. However, the proposal can be best described as impromptu, and only reflects bureaucratic opportunism.
The unfortunate reality where engineers are alienated or disadvantaged must be changed. But allocating a certain percentage of government positions for them will only encourage science and engineering majors to abandon their professional fields and pursue public careers, because many are already trying hard to pass the civil service examination. If the development of science and technology can be achieved by hiring more engineers for the government, why not elect a president with a science and engineering background?
Scientific brains will be tested in laboratories and production lines, not in the government complex. Successful public careers of engineers are much different than the nation’s advance into the ranks of science powers. Ironically, among past ministers of science and technology, those with no science backgrounds have been better administrators than former scientists and engineers. China cannot be a role model for Korea when it comes to building a science power, especially because Chinese intellectuals chose science and engineering as a last resort to find a stable career under the communist system after the purges of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s, when Korea’s industrial development was beginning, gifted Korean students competed to enter Seoul National University for chemical and nuclear engineering studies.
Shunning science and technology careers is seen even in the developed world. In the United States, medical schools, law schools, and master of business administration programs attract brains with the prospect of immediate six-figure incomes, and laboratory and production positions are relatively unpopular. But the United States can maintain its lead in technology thanks to the continuing influx of smart foreign brains.
Korea has contributed to the trend with the so-called “educational exodus,” a booming study-abroad industry, and the drain of talented scholars is very serious. The country boasts statistics such as the highest per-capita population of Ph. D. holders in the world and the top average scientific competence of 15-year-old students. But Korea lacks the outstanding, finest few who can lead the country’s leap. The standardized education mass-produces above-average brains. At this juncture, giving preferential treatment to engineers by allocating a certain portion of government positions would not bring technological advances. Even Britain, which proudly values its traditional system, has recently created a special educational program for the gifted, giving young students a chance to accelerate their curriculum and enroll in college early.
Korea needs to approach the revival of science and technology with a comprehensive plan. Educational system reform must be the priority in order to encourage students to have scientific and engineering minds. Engineering systemizes the application of ideas to real life and the applications extend to finance, sociology and other fields. It is desirable to include mathematics and science as requirements in the college curriculum in the first two years regardless of a student’s major. On top of educational reform, government financial support to nurture science-technology talent is necessary. Scientific genius usually blossoms briefly when a person is in his early 20s. The government needs to help students use their talents in this crucial period of life and let them compete with the finest brains of the world by flexibly applying the military service system and offering incentives to keep these gifted people in the country. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, a leading advocate of science education, graduated from law school. A scientific mindset is more important than one’s background. The populist idea of allocating government positions might hurt the pride of science and insult the true scientific geniuses.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Byun Sang-keun