[Viewpoint] Scientists endure despite a fickle public

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[Viewpoint] Scientists endure despite a fickle public

Departments of ocean engineering, nuclear engineering and aerospace engineering were established at Seoul National University in 1968.

The drive to set up these new majors is said to have come from President Park Chung Hee himself, who saw that these subjects would be vital to Korea’s future development.

The department of ocean engineering was created out of whole cloth, while the department of aerospace engineering split off from the department of naval architecture.

The nuclear engineering department was already in place, but its admission intake tripled in 1968 to accept 30 new students. And in 1975, the department of astronomy broke away from the department of astronomy and meteorology.

From the Seoul-Busan Expressway to the greenbelt areas, these and other policies underscore Park’s prescient and visionary qualities.

Sometimes, however, seeing too far ahead can be a problem. These four academic departments were premature, born before their time.

They are luxurious fields of study that require the investment of enormous amounts of money and time, not at all appropriate for a country that at the time exported shoes and wigs. These departments were aristocratic in nautre, and even in the United States and Europe they were offered only at the graduate level at the time.

It was only natural that students were less than enthusiastic about applying to these departments. They didn’t have much faith that the degrees would lead to immediate job security or a steady income. The classes for these departments were often nearly empty, and the students who took them often felt they were a subject of scorn to their classmates, ridiculed for having no promising future.

It soon became apparent, that apart from a few government-funded research institutes, there were very few employment options for people with degrees from these departments.

Another problem was that the projects looking into how to develop nuclear bombs and long-range missiles were often canceled due to pressure from abroad. Korea was just too poor to explore space or the oceans at the time.

But now it is 2009, and these once-unfortunate minor-league scientists are being thrust into the limelight. Their masterpieces, the end result of years of failure and frustration, are finally making their debuts.

First up was the Naro-1 space rocket, and next month, Korea’s first icebreaker ship, the Araon, is scheduled to sail. Then, the export of a Korean-style nuclear power plant to the Middle East could well go ahead in December.

Despite the good news, the scientists and researchers are not smiling. They still seem concerned and tense, probably because of the chilling experiences of the past.

Take as an example the story behind the Araon. Three years ago, the British magazine The Economist named the North Pole as the most coveted region in the world, the one countries will fight over. One of the ironies of global warming is that natural resources such as oil and gas could become more accessible as the Arctic ice cap melts. There’s thought to be as much as three times the amount buried in the Middle East under that ice.

For over 10 years, Korean marine scientists have been advocating the need to develop an icebreaker ship, but the government wasn’t interested. So to get the boat built, the Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute and the Korean Polar Research Institute had get around the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and finally the Ministry of Education and Science.

The Araon project got a boost from an unexpected source when the hosts of the Yeosu International Expo stepped in. The thinking was that a country that is planning to host an international expo about the oceans should have at least one icebreaker ship. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Marine Affairs swiftly built Araon in just two years.

However, some marine scientists are concerned. No developed country, they say, would send a single icebreaker to a polar region. The United States usually sends two to three icebreaker ships together to help one another. If an icebreaker gets lodged between icebergs, it might be stuck for several months.

So maybe the Araon will be busy avoiding ice rather than breaking it.

Another interesting take on this theme involves the launch of the Naro-1, a mission that met with both success and failure. I saw a picture in a newspaper of an aerospace researcher in tears the day after the launch. I sensed his bitterness and frustration. His dreams, painstakingly crafted over many years, were shattered when the satellite failed to go into orbit.

It won’t be easy to shake off the fear that another launch might end in disaster, too. These long-suffering scientists know that all too well.

A failure or a mistake can be forgiven once or twice, but once people lose interest in the field, the misery can continue for a long time.

There are already ominous signs in cyberspace. Right after the launch of Naro-1, people argued over which president deserved the most credit for the project: Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung or Park Chung Hee. But the blame game began soon after news of the failed orbit broke.

It is cruel to scratch an open wound. We need to remember that the researchers and scientists behind this project deserve an enormous amount of respect for what they have achieved.

As I watched the tears of the Naro-1 researcher, I was reminded of a friend, an ocean engineering major in a department with only five students.

When he was frustrated or felt lonely, he used to listen to Korean pop singer Kim Min-gi’s “Small Star” and was encouraged by the inspiring lyrics.

“When things don’t go your way, when you feel everything is beyond your power, then you have to rest. But you should never give up. When you flip a coin, you get the other side. Success is just the other side of failure. A distance that seemed great can be short. Now is the time to make your best attack. Even when you’re in the worst possible situation, never give up.”

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho
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