Playing science catch-up

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Playing science catch-up

Filming of the upcoming mega-budget film “Operation Chromite,” portraying the amphibious invasion by U.N. soldiers on Sept. 15, 1950, at Incheon led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, an attack that played a decisive role in turning the tide of the Korean War, began last week. The film drew interest after Liam Neeson was cast to play the famous general. MacArthur had predicted that it would take at least a century for Korea to rebuild itself from the war rubble.

How wrong he was. South Korea’s gross domestic product, which was a pitiful $1.3 billion in 1953, expanded 1,000 times over the following 60 years. Per capita income that was $79 in 1960 is now over $28,700. In terms of GDP, Korea has the 11th largest in the world. The dramatic transformation could not have taken place without advances in science and technology.

But Korea’s science and technology field has long been under fire for poor research and development results and having no output worthy of Nobel Prize recognition. Japan this year added to its handsome list of Nobel laureates in the fields of physiology or medicine and physics. Chinese-born Tu Youyou brought the first Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for China this year for her discoveries in malaria treatment based on traditional herbs. Her lengthy research was possible through the backing of the government in science and medicine.

Korea has made little scientific progress to win Nobel honor because of a relative short history in basic science and short-sighted national approach in science and engineering. Korea has been an exemplary case in achieving fast industrial and economic headway through the catch-up model, or benchmarking already proven technologies of advanced countries. Over the last 50 years, Korea’s technology capabilities shined under a concentration of resources to benchmark, apply, and develop the models and products of advanced countries. Although Korea has failed to produce a Nobel laureate in science, Korean scientists and engineers have been recognized for their commitment and excellence. Under state patronage, Korean Inc. has elevated to the global ranks, leading the pack.

But lately, we are falling back in the race for new innovations. Technology is advancing at dizzying pace in the fields of drones, automated vehicles, robotic applications and big data. Google has made our imaginations come true and created entirely new market and lifestyle. The concept of innovation has entirely changed with seemingly no limitations in convergences.

Yet our innovation abilities seem to have worn out. China is already on our tail and the gap in technology between the two countries has narrowed to just 1.8 years. Companies like Alibaba, Xiaomi, Baidu, and Tencent are making global headlines. Japan has finally recovered from decades-old stagnation and is making a rebound, generating jobs for 97 percent of college graduates. The weaker yen has helped, but it is Japan’s basic technology capacity that is shining again in a revived economy.

While competitiveness of our mainstay industries and export items is being challenged, Korea does not have an alternative growth engine. R&D must come up with results in valued added innovations, but productivity is low due to structural problems. R&D budgets for the next year are proposed to edge up just 0.2 percent from this year. Long gone are the days when the economy ran at double-digit growth. We therefore must increase efficiency in R&D investment.

The World Science Summit was held in Daejeon last week. The event brought nearly 4,000 policymakers and scholars from 57 countries in both the developed and developing world. During the meeting of science and technology ministers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, participants adopted a declaration setting the direction of science and technology policies toward digitalization and innovation for 10 years to come.

The president attended the meeting and the prime minister opened the World Science & Technology Forum. To work towards the common goal for innovations, we need a long-term policy platform. As the World Economic Forum raised its global reputation through the annual Davos Forum, the World Science & Technology Forum should regularize the Daejeon Forum to use the platform to develop policies to incubate and groom scientific breakthroughs and innovations.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 31, Page 31

*The author is a former environment minister and president of the Green Korea 21 Forum.

by Kim Myung-ja

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