An annual event, an annual letdownAround this time last year, another reporter asked me if his story would make for interesting news. He was researching the Nobel Prize and found out that there was a Nobel laureate born in Korea other than former President Kim Dae-jung, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. Norwegian-American scientist Charles Pederson won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1987. He was born in Busan in 1904, while his father was working in Korea, and lived here until he was 8.
The reporter was worried readers might find the story irrelevant since it was the only tie Pederson had to Korea. But the story was published and garnered considerable attention. After all, Koreans have a great interest in the Nobel Prize.
Over the past few years, scientist Charles Lee has been mentioned as a potential recipient for the Nobel Prize in physiology. The director of the Jackson Laboratory, Lee is an international authority in genome research. He was introduced as a promising candidate in the Korean media this year as well.
But he is not Korean. While he was born in Seoul to Korean parents, his family immigrated to Canada when he was just an infant. But some articles emphasize his ethnic background and state that he uses a Gyeongsang dialect when he speaks in Korean.
The government would never fail to miss such mass desperation. In 2008, the Ministry of Education commissioned a study to a university research center and published a 189-page report titled, “Analysis and Approach Strategies of the Nobel Prize in Science.” It proposed a strategy for a Korean scientist to win the Nobel Prize and contained ways in which we could support scientists up for other prominent awards, like the Wolf Prize or the Lasker Awards. It also encouraged young scientists to become regular members of renowned academic societies before turning 40. Even considering the desperation, this “strategic” approach is quite embarrassing.
The annual announcement listing the year’s Nobel Prize winners has become a sore point for Korea - like when your favorite baseball team fails to move on to the post-season or the colder weather signals the year’s end.
We try to console ourselves, claiming that the prize is not about national pride, but it may as well be a defense mechanism. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this national sense of dejection will subside after more attention is paid to supporting basic sciences. The anticipation, disappointment and oblivion come and go every year.
The author is the deputy national news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 7, Page 35
by LEE SANG-EON