Changing Science in Korea

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Thursday, December 8th, 2016
Pyo Jae woo

Korea is recognized as one of the leading science and technology countries in the world. Smartphones, TVs, home appliances, and robotics all tout Korea’s leading technological expertise and innovation. But, let me ask a question to those of you who live in this society that places so much emphasis on science and technology.

“Is today’s relationship between science and society always appropriate?”
Before answering this question, I would like to discuss how science, technology and society are connected. When we talk about modern society, we can’t leave out science and technology. Everything around us contains science and technology. In other words, science and technology have changed many aspects of our society. Therefore, modern people easily say that science and technology can shake and strike the society. However, it’s not just a one-way relationship. Science and technology are also affected by society. Our collective desire for a longer, healthier life led to the development of medicine such as during wars, when our social needs led to the development of weapons technology.

Here is another question:

“If a powerful company such as Google had not created AlphaGo, would Lee Sedol’s game with AlphaGo garnered so much attention?”

I don’t think so. As many of you already know, without the huge capital of Google, the game would have not been well publicized. Even getting Lee Sedol to play against a computer would not have succeeded. He was reportedly paid $150,000 to play five games with AlphaGo, with an added $20,000 more for each game that he won. If he was declared the winner, he was guaranteed a cool million dollars. How many companies would be able to afford these prices? This shows how much modern science and technology depend on capitalist policies.

Because modern science and technology have been fragmented into a large number of smaller, more specialized fields than in the past, each discipline holds a vast number of fields. Physics is no longer just physics, but astronomy, particle physics, nuclear physics, plasma physics, atomic physics, condensed matter physics, optical physics, atomic physics, biophysics, physics economy, among others. Furthermore, the convergence movement in the sciences is adding converged fields into the mix. As the example of AlphaGo shows, the essential point here is that investors decide what will be chosen to be developed among a list of scientific and technological fields. On the capitalist stage, science and technology have no option but to develop according to who can afford the research expenses. Not surprisingly, most of the recent hot issues such as A.I (Artificial Intelligence) and stem cells are focused on vested interests. In other words, the problem with so many narrow fields in the sciences means that, because of financial interests, the person controlling the finances chooses to focus on just one of the many very narrow fields – excluding the large number of other fields. Because of this fragmentation, when an investor becomes intent on one specific field, much of the rest of the field is left behind. In this way, in answer to the original question, society (as represented by the investor) dictates the progress made in a very small area of science, one that generally won’t help those in the lowest parts of society.

More importantly, the fact that fundamental science is broken is a huge problem. The problem is also caused by the need to follow the money. To be specific, because engineering is more practical than fundamental science, investors who want to get profit have no option but to focus on engineering. This is a serious problem in Korea, especially after the IMF crisis in 1997. IMF fundamentally shifted the way science is viewed in Korea. As we can see from the data, the amount that manufacturing contributed to the GDP increased 279% from 1997 to 1999. Because Korea lacks natural resources, the only way for Korea to climb out of its financial distress was to produce a lot of goods and sell them by importing raw materials and exporting the manufactured goods. Hence, whereas the fundamental sciences were valued before IMF, the focus turned to engineering after IMF (and of course to medicine). When we see that in 2015, the number of new master’s course students in the departments of engineering and medicine (25,566) was tripled the number in the department of natural science (7,935), we can see how much Korea is ignoring the fundamental sciences. Korea must invest in more fundamental science education.

In essence, the link between “science and society” is actually “science and investor” because it is the investor who communicates with and controls the science. The poor are excluded not only from the communication, but also from the advantages reaped from modern science. For example, the percentage of Internet users in America is 13 times the percentage in Afghanistan. Because the Internet is not well-propagated, all modern technologies that are built on the Internet are meaningless in Afghanistan. As the example shows, isolated interactions between science and the establishment increase the gap between the rich and poor.

To resolve the problems of modern science, public support for research facilities should be increased because the dependence that researchers have on investors needs to be decreased. Especially, public support for fundamental science research should be encouraged. Science for short term and actualization of specific social needs are important, but science for science itself is important too – because having a wide range of advances in all the areas of science means that we will have more choices with which to resolve different problems in society, as opposed to developing just one small area of science that have limited applications. I think the interaction between science and society will be more meaningful when science is for science itself.

One way to circumvent these issues is for the government to play a more direct and active role in funding the sciences, especially the fundamental sciences so that the sciences don’t need to turn to corporate funding. In short, engineering and medicine all ultimately depend on the fundamental sciences. When fundamental science stops or slows, so will engineering and medicine.