A question of basics

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A question of basics

Korea suddenly feels smaller when Nobel Prize season comes around. Despite its stature as one of the ten largest economies, it has not won a prestigious prize in science in the entire 116-year history of the Nobel Prize.

Japan had another Nobel laureate this year: Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, an honorary professor of physiology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Ohsumi, 71, has devoted 50 years to the study of autophagy, the destructive mechanism of the cell that disassembles dysfunctional components. The fruits of his life-long research are widely used for the treatment of cancers or incurable diseases.

Japan has emerged as a frontrunner in basic science after grabbing Nobel Prizes in science for three consecutive years with a total of 22 winners. China is not doing bad either. Last year, China exulted at the news that Tu Youyou, 85, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for her work in helping to create an anti-malaria medicine.

Korea is a different story. No Korean scientist has ever been nominated for the distinguished prize even though Korea annually invests 8.6 trillion won ($77.2 billion) — or 4.28 percent of its gross domestic product — to research and development. That figure nearly tops the global rankings. In terms of share of GDP, Korea’s R&D investment exceeds the United States and Japan. The share is twice that of China.

What’s the reason for this astounding gap between spending and results?

The government has a dismissive attitude toward basic science and a very short term approach to scientific studies in general. Even if budgets for research increase, they are focused on applied science like semiconductors or telecommunications — an easy source of profit. For instance, after artificial intelligence became a hot issue following the battle between Korean Go player Lee Se-dol and Alpha Go, the government swiftly drew up a blue print for the development of a “Korean-style Alpha Go.” Local scientists even submitted a collective petition to the government after complaining that only six percent of its 19 trillion won budget for research is earmarked for basic science.

You cannot raise competitiveness in basic science overnight. The government must listen to Prof. Ohsumi’s remark that it can take 100 years for scientific research to help a society. The government must allocate 47 percent of its research budget to basic science. Academia must drastically change its top-to-bottom working culture and prioritize long-term research over short-term returns. We cannot envy our neighbors forever.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 5, Page 30
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