[Outlook]A Nobel pursuit

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[Outlook]A Nobel pursuit

When this year’s Nobel Prize winners were announced, a lawyer friend of mine asked me, “Why can’t Korean scientists win the Nobel Prize for chemistry or physics?”

He’s not usually interested in science but he must have felt envious of Japan, as four Japanese scientists were awarded Nobels.

One Korean daily came out with the headline “13:0,” describing the fact that 13 Japanese scientists, including a Japanese-American, have won Nobel Prizes in science, while Koreans have won none. This probably doesn’t sit well with many Koreans, especially because of the rivalry that exists between the two countries.

We can beat Japan in football and baseball, but why can’t we do so in science? We beat Japan at Go as well, despite Japan’s claim as the origin of the game. In women’s golf Japan doesn’t even come close to us. But why can’t we catch up with Japan in scientific fields?

I gave my friend the usual answer. First, Japan accepted modern science long before we did. Professor Hideki Yukawa won the Nobel Prize for Physics, Japan’s first, in 1949. At that time in Korea, there were less than 10 people who had received a basic science education, and one could become a college professor with only a bachelor’s degree. This year’s Physics Nobel laureate won the prize for work he did in the 1960s.

We will have to wait a long time for our turn, because it has been only 20 years since Korea’s universities started to conduct research.

Second, Japan also has a strong foundation for basic science and a huge amount of support from the government. Even during the economic slump of the past decade, investment in basic science has constantly increased. In contrast, the Korean government supports only short-term research that may turn out to be profitable.

But my friend would not be convinced that easily.

“Dr. Yukawa won the Nobel Prize in 1949, so he must have conducted his research during World War II. The environment then must have been much worse than it is in Korea nowadays. Park Se-ri won many championships on the women’s golf tour and she didn’t have a good environment. Blaming the environment is only an excuse,” he said.

His argument is convincing. Many Koreans would probably like to ask our scientists the same question. Of course, a genius produces outstanding achievements regardless of his or her environment. It is regretful that Korea’s science community hasn’t yet produced such a person.

But for the Nobels for Physics and Chemistry to be truly meaningful, producing one or two geniuses out of thin air isn’t good enough. The prestigious prize will mean a lot more if we win it by developing our basic scientific research to the level of advanced countries and start coming up with new technologies and innovations to contribute to humankind’s intellectual property.

In achieving this goal, the most important driving force is, of course, the persistent efforts of scientists. But they can’t do it without outside support, from bodies like the government. The time when scientists studied in a dark den with only a pen and a notebook is now long in the past. The government’s consistent support for basic scientific research is absolutely necessary.

American scientist Douglas Prasher was the first person to realize the potential uses of green fluorescent protein. But due to a lack of research funds, he gave up his research halfway and now works as the driver of a car dealership’s shuttle bus.

Financial support is a prerequisite for scientific research. It is very positive that the Lee Myung-bak administration has promised to devote 50 percent of the state budget to research and development of new technologies.

Along with that financial injection, the paradigm for investment in research and development must change. The government is so accustomed to following the developments of advanced countries that it recently required applicants for basic research grants to write down how the study can reduce imports.

When the government is fixated on the short-term economic effects of scientific research, it is difficult to make groundbreaking discoveries or to develop new technologies.

The process of selecting which research to support must be left in the hands of professional scientists. In the past, civil servants made the decision by looking at the technologies in advanced countries and deciding on the top priorities.

But these days, it is important to conduct unique research that no one else is doing.

Therefore, professional knowledge is very important when selecting which studies should be funded with government grants.

If the government provides consistent support for scientists from the scientists’ perspective, our young scientists can look forward to being able to win the Nobel Prize for Physics or Chemistry.

The writer is a physics professor and dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung
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