Science sidelined in politics
Can you name scientists who, in your opinion, were the most influential in history? This question is aimed at measuring people’s familiarity with science in general.
I came up with some names such as Albert Einstein, a German theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Marie Curie.
One more question: Can you name a single important Korean scientist in history? As I could not quickly come up with a single name, I typed “hangukui gwahakja,” literally meaning Korean scientists, in a portal site search.
Then I found a list of 10 names, including agronomist Woo Jang-chun who invented seedless watermelons; doctor Ji Seok-young who introduced vaccinations for the first time in this country; and theoretical physicist Lee Whi-soh, also known as Benjamin W. Lee, a world-class elementary particle physicist who died in a car accident in Illinois in 1977.
Most of Korea’s high school graduates would offer a list of foreign names. Indeed, most people I asked were unable to name a single Korean scientist, illustrating that familiarity with Koreans in the field of science is absent.
Public familiarity with science is regarded as a mirror to the quality of science education in a country. According to the Brain Korea 21 research group on science education at Seoul National University, Korean students thought science is crucial but said they had no intention of pursuing scientific activities. Few students wanted to become scientists.
The situation facing science education is mainly attributable to inconsistency in the government’s science policy. Whenever a transfer of government occurs, there is a change in science policy. One of President Lee Myung-bak’s most serious mistakes was merging the ministries of education and science which formerly handled unique policies.
This policy failure is in contrast to a science and technology development plan China has consistently implemented for the past six decades, which culminated in its first manned space docking on Monday, the latest step in their plan toward establishing a space station around the year 2020.
The minister of science and technology was a deputy prime ministerial-level official, an indication that the government placed more emphasis on science than on other fields. In 2004 during the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration, the National Assembly approved a bill to elevate the science minister to the position of a deputy prime minister as part of efforts to facilitate technological renovation and to attain a per capita income of $20,000.
The merger came four years later in a move to promote administrative efficiency. It is right to say that the science ministry was absorbed into the education ministry as, among other factors, the merger resulted in a significant drop in the number of science officials inside the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Korea belatedly opened a research institute devoted to basic science in Daejeon last month. In his speech during the opening ceremony of the Institute for Basic Science, President Lee lamented that Korea has so far copied and followed advanced countries. The state-funded institute will carry out a 5.2-trillion-won ($4.5 billion) international project that calls for the creation of research complexes, including a particle accelerator. It will help develop technologies. Completion is expected by 2017.
There have been calls to revive the science ministry and give scientists a greater say. Leaders are well aware that making a leap in science and technology will help create growth engines. The key issue of putting science policies back on track remains sidelined in Korean politics.