Taking the boat over the mountain

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Taking the boat over the mountain

Yoon Seok-jin
The author is the President of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST).

I recently attended a conference to discuss countermeasures to the intensifying U.S.-China war for technological hegemony. The opinions presented were nothing new. Attendees addressed the creative and challenging research environment, an innovative ecosystem to foster unicorn companies, and problems with laws and systems that cannot keep up with new technologies.

All agreed on the need to reduce intervention and increase autonomy. But excessive prudence stopped further discussion. Some showed concerns that “the boat may end up in the mountains.” I couldn’t stand it anymore and had to say, “Now, the boat of science and technology should be able to climb mountains as well.”

After two years, distancing measures have been abolished. We still have the inconvenience of wearing masks, but the Covid era reached a turning point. In the free time I finally regained after a long while, I watched the historical drama “Vikings,” a story about legendary Viking lord Ragnar Lothbrok who ruled what’s now Denmark and Sweden in the early and mid-9th century.

Among many Vikings’ adventures, the “Portage” episode about the attack of Paris was most memorable. As Ragnar Lothbrok’s forces are blocked by fortresses and chains in the narrow channel of the Seine River and had to retreat, he stops the ships in a place surrounded by cliffs. When his aides advised him to find another location to pillage, he says, “It’s not Paris. We’ll lift the ships over the cliff and pass the mountain. We will head to Paris.” As Paris did not expect the overland attack, it was besieged in the end.

In 1966, President Park Chung Hee established the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) for scientific advancement. As Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world at the time, the choice may seem like a boat heading to the mountain in the eyes of economists at home and abroad. But half a century after choosing the future instead of solving immediate hunger, Korea has transformed from a country with little resources to the tenth largest economy, bigger than Russia and Australia. Korea also has become a cultural powerhouse, practically fulfilling the dream of Baekbeom Kim Gu (1876-1949), a highly respected Korean independence activist and statesman. Today is glorious. But is it enough?

The future generation who’s afraid of becoming poorer than their parents’ generation may think today is dystopia. At the end of last year, the Ministry of Science and ICT chose 10 essential strategic technologies for Korea’s rebound. These are the original technologies we need to not only improve on but also excel in order not to fall behind in the contest for technology.

The problem is that aside from secondary batteries, Korea is about 60 percent of the countries with highest technological advancement in most areas, including AI, proton, space and aeronautics. If we don’t change, the only way is descent. The first step for change is to allow our researchers to pursue challenges that seem reckless today but outstanding for the future. The way to open a new horizon is to allow limitless ideas and support for them.

KIST is now pursuing innovation to break the mannerism of risk-averse research and development, as seen by its “98 percent success rate.” Notably, the “Grand Challenge” is a challenge for far-fetching ideas. The selected tasks are evaluated based on the excellence in the process. The program supports the researchers who are not afraid of failures and have a conviction to pursue necessary studies.

The evaluation system where a grade is determined by one or two points has been abolished. Researchers are now allowed to request postponement of individual evaluations to challenge bigger research projects. The rivals of the researchers aiming to develop game-changer technologies are not the colleagues in the lab next door but the world-class scholars who devoted their lives to the topic. To the friends who say, “We are doing well enough” and recommend a comfortable path rather than pursuing innovation, I want to say, “Our goal is not to become one of the developed countries. We want to be a leading nation by taking our ship of science and technology over the mountain.”
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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