[INTERVIEW] Goal is 'first, best and only' R&D, KAIST president says
Science and technology have been some of the most powerful weapons used by mankind to fight epidemics, and Shin Sung-chul, president at KAIST, sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to arm Korea with effective tools.
Despite Korea’s reputation for being tech-savvy and its well-known tracking and quarantine system, the country is saddled with different issues to be resolved to gain the leading edge, he said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily.
The spread of the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the pivotal role of science and technology and renewed the need for a collaborative approach in the academia.
To help contain the spread, the president launched a set of programs using research resources at the science and technology university.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Shin to discuss the renewed role of science and technology and the research university in the pandemic era and the direction Korea should take.
Q. What does the coronavirus mean for science and technology?
A. There are three threats facing mankind in the 21st century: nuclear weapons, global warming and viruses. As we grappled with the coronavirus, we came to learn that the most threatening could be viruses. The risk that nuclear weapons pose is tremendous, but limited to certain regions. Global warming takes place across the world but does so gradually. But the virus poses serious risk to the world and spreads very quickly, in a matter of months. Therefore, we can say that the coronavirus is the biggest threat. To put an end to this crisis, the ultimate solution is a vaccine, a goal that cannot be achieved by one country or sector. We should take on a collaborative approach to pull together researchers from the medical, science and technology fields. The coronavirus helped create a direction for health care, science and technology to work together.
KAIST doesn’t have a medical school, which can be seen as a weak point when carrying out Covid-19 related projects. How can the institution remain competitive?
In Korea, students with top scores go to medical school and most of them become general practitioners working for hospitals. But to develop the vaccine and treatment for infectious diseases, a pool of quality talent with deep medical knowledge is required. This is why we opened a program to nurture biomedical engineering and science scholars. We invite licensed doctors to carry out biomedical research. The outbreak heightened the importance of such specialists, and the medical sector has become more supportive of the program.
With the outbreak striking the country, KAIST also launched a special task force assigned to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. How does the team work?
We launched the team in August to help the country contain the virus. The group consists of 44 professors from different divisions, ranging from medical, life sciences, engineering and industrial design in collaboration with 120 external experts. We gathered professors who showed interest in March and received research ideas to be put to test. Based on the initial proposals, the team succeeded in developing tools and products to protect health care professionals and others from the impact of virus — such as reusable facial masks and protective clothing with improved breathability. The protective clothing came after listening to the requests by medical staff who complained during hot weather. We don’t see this initiative as a one-off, because the industry for fighting the virus — the so-called antivirus sector — will grow explosively in the future. Market insiders have said that the market will grow to 2,000 trillion won ($1.8 trillion) within five years. To flourish in the segment, scientists, big and small companies and the government should all work together.
What do you think is the most pressing agenda item for Korea?
Put simply, increasing national competitiveness based on the development of science and technology. Korea displayed extraordinary economic progress within half a century, a phenomenon known as the Miracle on the Han River. Half a century ago, the country’s per capita income stood at $100, but now it has ballooned to $30,000. It reached the $10,000 milestone in 1994, powered by flourishing steel and petrochemical industries. The shipbuilding and automobile sectors acted as the main drivers for clinching the next landmark achievement of $20,000 in 2006. When we finally reached the $30,000 level in 2018, the semiconductor and IT industries propelled the growth. So, it can be said that we are living in a world whose hegemonic power is determined by technological advancement. The shifting paradigm is exemplified by the U.S.’ restriction on trade and some technologies from China and Japan’s export restriction on key materials against Korea. Against this backdrop, a country’s competitiveness goes hand in hand with that in technology. If Korea is to achieve another miracle, the country should enhance competitiveness through the development of technology and science.
Where does Korea stand in terms of the competitiveness you mentioned?
Korea is broadly considered as being at 10th place in the world because it ranks at the spot in terms of production of journals classified by the Science Citation Index (SCI). When it comes to intellectual property, the country ranks at fourth based on the number of patent applications and fifth on the number of the applications filed with a U.S. patent office. The record would lead us to conclude that Korea achieved some kind of competitiveness, but it does so from the perspective of quantity. But Korea still runs a deficit of about 4 trillion won in technology, which means the country’s expenditures for bringing technology from overseas is larger than revenues generated from exporting its own.
Korea also lacks competitiveness in designing the source technology that forms the basis of research, a deplorable fact given that source technology will become more important in the future.
Another weak point is the modest amount of research expenditure and personnel compared to the advanced economies. When we look at the proportion of R&D spending to gross domestic product (GDP), Korea ranks high. But the exact level is a fifth when compared to that in the United States and China, and is a half of Japan's. The number of researchers are also only a quarter compared to that of the United States and China, and is half of Japan's.
Then, how can Korea make meaningful advancement in science and technology with its limited resources?
Korea used to be a fast follower, quickly following in the footsteps of advanced economies. But that scheme is no longer sustainable, and we should take the lead for innovation. To do that, the research we should focus on should fall into the following three categories: first, best and only.
In facilitating the three-pronged approach, the government should also shift the way it funds research projects. Up until now, its funding trend took place in the shape of an inverted U, which means it supported the studies that are neither too fundamental nor too business-oriented. A great deal of funding went toward this type of research because it is a safe option.
Instead, the government should shift the direction to make it a U shape, reorienting its focus toward basic science or applicable research that could provide economic value.
The funding needs to last for a longer term, too.
The practice of setting a certain field for funding also needs to be fixed to nurture a research environment oriented toward researchers.
Can KAIST take on that kind of role when pushing for the production of “best, first and only” research?
Among others, we have introduced a singularity professorship, a special track awarded to outstanding faculty members who explore intriguing academic disciplines with exceptional scholarship. Every year, KAIST selects two or three professors for this track with full-scale research funding for 10 years and exemption from regular requirements regarding research publications.
Another initiative is the Global Singularity Research Project, a cross-department endeavor to identify the most critical projects. It brings together faculty across divisions to address future-oriented research projects.
Is there any special focus in nurturing talent at the university?
KAIST was created a half century ago with the mission to nurture talent that the country needs. When the university was born, Korea underwent industrialization. So, one of the most important skills was the ability to apply things quickly. In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, however, the leading figures need to be creative, caring and willing to face challenges — the three criteria that we have set as the mission when I was inaugurated as president. The commitment to resolving challenges is critical because the fourth wave of industrialization is filled with uncharted paths. So, we need someone with the courage to face them. Studies across different departments are required to address today’s problems and creativity is required to conduct such research. Caring is an essential quality, as is being more inclusive toward the world and our neighbors. Traditionally, education was considered as a method to serve one’s prosperity. But the direction should be changed to take care of those surrounding oneself.
BY PARK EUN-JEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]