Korean model’s limitationJapan has produced its 24th Nobel Prize laureate. Akira Yoshino, 71, a Japanese chemist, received the honor together with John Goodenough, 97, an engineering professor at the University of Texas, and Michael Stanley Whittingham, 77, a chemistry professor at the State University New York at Binghamton, for their contribution to the invention of lithium-ion batteries that now power and recharge things from cell phones to electric vehicles. A Japanese name, Tasuku Honjo, also was included in the 2018 winners in physiology or medicine for discovery of cancer therapy. By country, Japan ranks 5th in the most Nobel Prize winners. Korea has produced just one — Kim Dae-jung — for the peace prize.
Nobel recognitions in economics and science go to discoveries that contribute in advancing and widening human capabilities and spectrum. It takes a lengthy period for a new invention or technology to prove their effect on human lives. According to a study by a Korean foundation on science papers which led to Nobel awards over the last 10 years, the laureates are an average age of 57. It takes 17.1 years on average to produce the key papers and another 14.1 years to receive Nobel recognition after their publication. In other words, at least 31.2 years are needed to win a Nobel Prize. A social system is needed to back scientific studies.
But all the systems in Korea — education, culture and policies — are based on practicability for fast results. Schooling is focused entirely on college admissions evolving around the three main test subjects of Korean language, English and math. Kids are not encouraged to build creativity. Instead of basic studies, research funding goes to those that can be commercialized immediately. Over the years, Korea has mostly been chasing technologies and models of advanced economies like the United States and Japan.
Public polices are also devoted to practical technologies that can turn out products. Companies and government have only recently turned attention to basic science. But Japan has been sending young scientists overseas since the Meiji restoration period in the 19th century and established the basic science hub — Riken — in 1917. The government, companies and society must change their mindset. Waiting for a Noble Prize is like waiting for the apple to fall under the tree. But the dream is far-fetched for us because we don’t have an apple tree in the first place.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 11, Page 34