[VIEWPOINT]The risks of globalized scienceSo far, stem cell research has not yet sparked in South Korea the sort of very intense emotional debate about ethnical implications now underway in the United States. Does this reflect fundamental cultural differences between Korea and the United States, and perhaps Korea and the world at large, or other factors?
In the United States, the intense debate over the appropriateness of federal government support for stem cell research has distracted attention from the truly global character, and associated implications, of scientific development. American attention has been preoccupied with the highly emotional domestic political controversy, but a principal spur for actions in Congress and by the Bush administration has come from overseas.
The most recent breakthroughs in research in this field have occurred in South Korea, notably through efforts led by Professor Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University. This is a leading example of the profound long-term changes taking place in both basic and applied science.
Professor Hwang personifies the moral dimensions as well as the broad global reach of stem cell science. A convert to Buddhism, he regularly visits Jeondungsa temple on Gwanghwado island, as he did on the morning of his departure for Britain and the United States to announce the successful creation of stem cells customized to afflicted patients.
Two decades ago, a stay at Hokkaido University in Japan, undertaken at the suggestion of Dean Cheong Chang-kook of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University, was crucial to his current success. In this manner, the globalization of science identified decades ago by Professor Don K. Price of Harvard University continues to evolve.
Professor Hwang’s career indicates the extraordinary global spread of scientific expertise. Before World War II, Great Britain enjoyed distinctive strength in basic science. Professor Price, an analyst of policy in that generation, was impressed by the eagerness with which American scientists through the 1930s awaited the latest British scientific journals. After World War II, the information flow was reversed, with scholars overseas urgently consuming the latest research from the United States.
The determination and talent which have fueled the extraordinarily rapid economic development of South Korea have led to a fascination with scientific research and a focus on immediate technological applications.
One potential danger is underestimating the dangers in hasty application of very new advanced technologies. Application without due reflection may lead to error, and the potential for egregious, perhaps horrible, misapplications in the realm of stem cell research is obvious.
Inherent morality is not more highly developed in the United States, or the West in general, than in Korea. Enron and other corporate scandals in the United States undercut any automatic assumptions of collective moral superiority. In recent years, South Korea has been notably energetic in developing and applying legal sanctions against corporate, governmental and other criminal behavior.
The point instead is that if the American debate may slow down or obstruct life-saving techniques, the Korean drive to advance ― especially in extremely sophisticated realms of science and technology ― may lead to serious errors through haste.
Yet the undercurrent is encouraging overall. The geographic broadening of scientific expertise in recent decades is extraordinarily important. No longer is research and development primarily an Anglo-American, or even Euro-American, undertaking.
Contemporary global economic advancement has democratized science and technology in basic ways. U.S. influence in graduate instruction is now unparalleled, with students flocking to the United States from around the globe; but one result is the steady dilution of American advantages in knowledge.
During the twentieth century, the average lifespan in industrial nations doubled, from approximately forty years to eighty. Scientific research has been central to this advance. The stem cell debate is the latest development in an extraordinary saga of human progress.
The twentieth century also witnessed mass movements based on mass extermination. Given that backdrop, the current debate represents, in total, a chorus of hope.
* The writer is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War.’ He can be reached at
by Arthur I. Cyr