[Viewpoint] Taking science beyond the laboratory

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[Viewpoint] Taking science beyond the laboratory

The largest snowfall since the beginning of meteorological observation in Korea has led to great damage in the central region of the Korean Peninsula since the start of the new year.

Watching the heavy snowfall - which clearly showed how weak people are in the face of natural disasters - I was reminded of an incident that I recently read about in a book.

It was the story of the tsunami that occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004.

U.S. weather trackers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted the situation ahead of time and sent an e-mail message to Indonesian officials.

However, there was nothing the Indonesian authority could do but wait for the rage of nature, largely because the country did not have a prediction system in place to confirm the news or a warning system to alert residents.

That tsunami case is something people can refer to, because it shows the clear difference between “what science can do” and “what science actually does,” and there are many similar instances we can examine in the research field.

Meteorological observation is the science closest to the lives of people.

Technology in this realm is advancing, but the abnormal temperatures that arise due to global warning are making accurate weather predictions increasingly difficult worldwide.

A natural disaster prevention system can only fully function when it has accurate predictions based on science, an effective alarm system, and a sociocultural structure that accepts such warnings and then can prepare in the required fashion.

The best in science and technology needs to be mobilized because it secures the safety of the people and is directly related to corporate and family activities, and this is why advanced countries invest huge amounts of resources in accurate meteorological observations.

Investments made by Korea are nowhere near the standard of advanced countries, and the scale of meteorology support - a basic science - is not large either. So in some respects it is only natural that our weather predictions are less accurate.

The indifference of society as a whole and the neglect of basic science will affect people’s lives, if not now than someday.

However, this problem does not just appear in the meteorological observation field, and scientists are also largely responsible for this.

They need to self-reflect on whether they have made active attempts to make technological standards known to the public to solve current national and social issues, and whether they made sufficient efforts to seek research collaboration with other fields.

The demands of the public are growing more diverse with Korea entering the rank of advanced countries, and these demands cannot be met if scientists do not actively solve current agendas and insist on conducting tests only for the facilities and laboratories that they are affiliated with, as is common now.

Only when things that “can be done” are commercialized and things that “are done” are applied to people’s lives will the public be able to understand the importance of science and technology.

In order for science and technology to reach the stage where it directly affects the lives of people, studies on source technology that require long-term research and commercialization need to be conducted simultaneously. Additionally, we need to set up a good cycle where the fruits of source technology developed though research are commercialized and applied to the people’s lives.

If the power of science can have a positive impact on the social and economic development of a country through such a system, the influential power of science and technology will naturally grow.

These days, I stress entrepreneurship, not only at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), but at any place I go where leaders and representatives of the science world gather.

I firmly believe that many scientists and government federal research centers need to think hard about how to do more for the country and people with the technology we have, and how to increase synergy effects through cooperation.

At KIST, we plan to establish a system where the commercialization of research results leads to wealth and honor for scientists. We will do that by offering an incentive of 50 percent of the technology transfer costs involved.

Only when star scientists are created through this system will there be many more future scientists who admire and follow them.

It is important to have something one “can do.” But it is even more important to actually “do” what can be done. Commercializing developed source technology is crucial in this situation.

This is the vocation of all science and technology professionals, and it represents a shortcut to receiving the public’s love and interest and to contributing wealth to the national economy, helping raise national prestige.

The fruits of a scientist’s labor must not remain in the laboratory. Rather, they should become a source of national competitiveness by directly contributing to the people’s lives.

This is what the future of Korean science and technology as well as the economy depend upon.

*The writer is the president of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology.

by Hahn Hong-taek
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