The long view
The author is the president of KIST.
The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics ended in early September after a yearlong delay. We have gained greater joy from the sight of bright smiles of young Korean athletes more than the medal count at the international sports competition held amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The Korean women’s fencing team enjoyed themselves on the podium although failing to win a gold, Lee Da-bin held her thumb up at her rival who stole the gold at the over 67 kilogram women’s taekwondo match, and high jumper Woo Sang-hyeok set national record by clearing the bar at 2.35 meters in the men’s high jump finals. All of them left a lasting impression.
The young athletes enjoying themselves and doing their best regardless of the ranking all beamed with self-confidence not soon among Korean players in the past. Gone are the days when Korean athletes desperately vied for more gold medals.
The Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST)’s Doping Control Center dispatched analysts to assist in the technology of identifying growth hormone and similar banned substances at the request of Tokyo authorities. The institute decided to contribute despite concerns about a leak in the technology in a show of Olympics spirit and pride of how much Korea’s status has changed over the years.
But the status is under threat. Korea has been fast losing its top rankings in innovation and technology breakthroughs, following in the footsteps of the United States, Germany and Japan. Keeping up the record as the world’s first and best is the only way to respond to the rapid buildup of economies of scale and price competitiveness of emerging economies. Unlike sports athletes whose endeavors can be appreciated through the show of sportsmanship, scientists and engineers can only be recognized for pioneering inventions or achievements in development.
An R&D environment producing the world’s first and best cannot be created overnight. KIST set the goal for global leadership in research two decades ago, but risk-aversion was inevitable to produce achievements. The institution went through reform in appointments, evaluation and organization through a yearlong internal discussion and coordination.
Innovation is not glamorous work. It is the outcome of strenuous pain and toil. A change can be risky, but without it there will be no progress. A 0.1 percent chance of success can only be possible when taking up the challenge. If innovation is not attempted now, many members of Korea Inc. could end up like Nokia, which was slow to transition to the digital future.
KIST has been pursuing two gold-aiming projects. One is the Grand Challenge, which involves aggressive R&D in areas unrealizable now yet necessary for mankind in the future. The bold challenge could bring about unexpected results. Another is K-Lab, which is aimed at grooming Team Korea in R&D. K-Lab will serve as a hotbed to sustain the competitiveness of Korean science and tech as well as drawing global talent to take up international projects.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.