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(EDITORIAL from The Korea Times on Oct. 7)

All News 07:05 October 07, 2016

Devotion toward science
Japan's successive Nobel feat has lessons for Korea

Japan's outstanding excellence in basic science has captured the world's attention once again upon the recent selection of Japanese microbiologist Yoshinori Ohsumi as the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cell autophagy. Ohsumi is the fourth Japanese Nobel laureate in medicine. It is also a successive win for Japan in the medicine category, as Japan's Satoshi Omura shared the prize in medicine with two other scientists from Ireland and China last year.

In Korea, the 71-year-old scientist has inspired awe and also a strong sense of envy among many who are asking why we have not been able to achieve similar level of recognition in science. With the triumph of the Tokyo Institute of Technology emeritus professor, Japan has accumulated 25 Nobel prizes. It is particularly noteworthy that 22 of them have been in various areas of science and medicine. The other three have come from peace and literature. Korea pales in comparison to Japan's strong Nobel record, having only won one -- the peace prize -- after former President Kim Dae-jung became the first Korean Nobel laureate in 2000.

The number of Japan's Nobel prizes is admirable, but what is truly more amazing is its long-term strategy for promoting science and research and development (R&D) that have helped Japan cement a reputation as a global leader in basic science. There are many reasons for Korea lagging in this area. One of the fundamental reasons is a general disregard for science in schools. Korean elementary and secondary schools are driven toward college entrance exams. Therefore, it is hard for students to develop a passion for science as many perceive it as just a tool to get accepted into a good university.

Japan's competitiveness in science has not been achieved overnight. It has a long history of promoting basic science dating back to the Meiji Restoration in the second half of the 19th century. Japan started sending young scientists abroad in the 1920s and produced a Nobel candidate in science as early as 1901.

The key lesson from Japan is that Korea needs to invest more in basic science. There is a serious lack of vision in Korea's R&D policy, which goes after catching up with fast trends. During a recent meeting presided over by President Park Geun-hye, science and technology strategy policymakers highlighted more investment toward AI (artificial intelligence) and self-driving cars, which are some of the hottest future industry items. But there was little mention of policy attention on basic science development.

There is also a huge problem with the way the government is spending its R&D budget. Korea spends about 4.29 percent of its GDP on R&D, which is the highest among OECD member states. It is spending more that the U.S., Japan and China. Many experts say that the government needs to invest more in basic science rather than applied science and IT technology. Recently a group of scientists complained in a public petition that the government spends only about 6 percent of its yearly R&D budget, about 19 trillion won, on basic science. In the U.S., the government spends almost 50 percent on basic science research and does not meddle in the research topics.

China recently announced a package of measures to catch up with the U.S. in science and technology by 2049. Like China, we urgently need bold planning and an effective implementation of the R&D budget to attain a more befitting stature in science that matches our global economic standing.

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