Two Koreans miss out on Nobel Science prizes

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Two Koreans miss out on Nobel Science prizes

The Nobel Prizes for science were given out this week, but again, no Koreans received one of the prestigious awards.

But the local science community says that Korea should not be disappointed and should find a way to ensure long-term financial support for promising projects.

Two scientists, Ryoo Ryong and Charles Lee, became the first Koreans last month to be named by Thomson Reuters as possible science prize contenders in chemistry and physiology or medicine, respectively.

Ryoo, a distinguished professor of chemistry at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist), made the list for his work developing mesoporous silica materials. Ryoo, who is also the director of the Center for Nanomaterials and Chemical Reactions at the state-run Institute for Basic Science (IBS) in Daejeon, hoped the material made of nano-sized pores could be used to accelerate the transportation of chemical substances such as medicine and DNA.

Thomson Reuters also picked Korean-Canadian Charles Lee, a director at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine and a visiting professor at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine, as a potential candidate for finding copied sections of human DNA that can be linked to treating diseases.

The two didn’t get the prize, but three Japanese professors - Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura - took the Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday for inventing blue light-emitting diodes that enable bright and energy-saving white light sources. This raised the total number of Japanese-born Nobel laureates to 19, 17 of which are Japanese nationals.

Korean online communities said that Korea was now losing to Japan in science by 19 to 0. But scientists said the two countries shouldn’t compare their numbers of laureates as if in a sporting event. They explained that the unnecessary criticism could dampen Korean scientists’ passion and motivation and that people should understand the countries’ different backgrounds in science.

Thomson Reuters has correctly predicted 34 winning laureates out of 174 candidates that it has short-listed as contenders from 1989 through last year. The official candidate list is created by the Nobel host, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

According to the organization’s candidate lists that have been made public, from 1901 through 1963, Kitasato Shibasaburo was the first Japanese scientist to make it onto the list. He was listed in 1901 for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. From then until 1963, 162 more Japanese made the list, but no Koreans have.

“Korea and Japan are incomparable when it comes to the roots of science,” said Cha Doo-won, director of the policy planning department at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning (Kistep).

Cha said that the Japanese government has consistently supported basic science research since the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Of seven national universities founded around that time, five have produced Nobel laureates, he added.

The Korean government started investing in basic science much later. Cha said the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) was the start of Korea’s foray into basic science, established in 1977. The government began investing in the institution in the early 1980s.

Korea’s state spending on R&D first surpassed 1 trillion won ($933 million) in 1993, and the state-led research promotion program for long-term projects started in 1996.

Compared to Japan’s research history of more than a century, Korea only has 30 years to show.

“Japan did not produce its first Nobel Science laureate until 1949 after consistently having its scientists on the official candidate list since 1901,” said Ahn Hwa-yong, a senior researcher at NRF. “I think we shouldn’t be disappointed. Korea started late.”

Ahn said the government should come up with long-term financial support for special projects. She said the government currently only funds R&D projects for individual scientists for three years, and if they can’t produce a something valuable, they lose funding.


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