firmly in place has been confirmed through an abundance of historical evidence.
Dream of original technology
"The nation, through the innovation of science and technology and the development of information and human resources, shall endeavor to improve the living standard of the people." Although one might wonder how many countries carry this type of article in their Constitution, at least Korea does, and a loyal follower is our government to Article 127 of our Constitution; it upgraded the Ministry of Education --- previously the Ministry of Education and Culture --- to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development and promoted the minister to a deputy prime minister in 2001, and in 2004, the Science and Technology Minster too, ascended to the deputy prime ministerial position.
Also ascended by a great leap is the level of government investments into national research and development. According to the press release by the Planning and Budget Ministry (Feb. 3), the government decided to use 9 trillion won (US 9.5 billion dollars), 14.2% up from the last year, for R&D investments. This is twice the rate of increase in total government expenditure (5.9%) and the amount of newly issued national science and technology bonds reached 225.2 billion won (US 250 million dollars).
The entire national R&D money is to be executed by the Ministry of Science and Technology; 2.2 trillion won, Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development; 1.0 trillion won, Ministry of Industry and Resource, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Information and Communication, and by the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises. Including the Development of a Korean model high-speed train and magnetic levitation train, prevention technology of the pine wood nematode (PWN), most of the money will be concentrated on; development capacity enhancement of original technology and development of creative persons; regional technology innovation capacity enhancement; and future growth engine promotion.
One the other hand, the amount of the national R&D investment of Japan for the period of next 5 years is 25 trillion yen (220 trillion won) or 5 trillion yen (45 trillion won) per year. One can argue with every point that the more the public fund is spent on science and technology research and development, the higher the economic development will be. But isn't 9 trillion won a little too much for the size of the Korean economy?
While Japan merged the education ministry and science and technology ministry into one, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, to which one minister is assigned, each of Korea's two departments has a deputy prime minister, under whom there are multitudes of advisory commissions and committees including the department of science and technology innovation; imagine how much money is being wasted for the organizational management!
Government should restrain itself
Instead of leaving work to the civilians, the government of Korea likes to handle them directly. Even many of our lawmakers contribute to this pervasive government expansion by making the government siphon more taxpayers' money into yet more government projects --- and they tend to boast about it as a part of their achievement list.
Recently, the Ministry of Science and Technology has commenced setting up a Deaduk Special Zone Investment Company, to be capitalized at 100 billion won and the 'global lab' project, and decided to give a large-scale renewal to the Science Korea project, a government led movement aimed at expanding the scientific culture. In continuation of the level one of BK21 --- BK meaning Brain Korea--- the Education Ministry is now working on the second stage of the BK 21 program where 290 billion won every year, or 2.03 trillion won in total for 7 years from 2006 will be invested. Of course, NURI (New University for Regional Innovation) in which 1.42 trillion is used for 5 years from 2004 is being carried out separately.
'Equalization', may be the front, the government of Korea, however, in fact, has been clinging to 'selection and concentration'. The exclusive support to the embryonic stem cell research of Hwang Woo Seuk, BK 21, and NURI are the examples. In the case of the level one of BK 21, as soon as Seoul University, which claims to be a research orientated university centered on post-graduate courses, raked up 44.5 % of the entire fund, ironically, it began experiencing an under-enrollment situation for the post graduate courses --- which led BK (Brain Korea) to be referred to as an acronym for Babo (Fool) Korea. (They would not have faced under-enrollment if they hadn't have the fixed level of enrollee numbers, anyway)
The source of government expenditure, including the national R&D fund, is basically the tax money paid by the people and businesses. If the R&D spending of government is not tightly managed, the money will soon become 'loose' --- and the 'Tragedy of the Commons' is bound to happen. We experienced the most exemplary case while going through the 'Hwang Woo Seuk syndrome'.
Although we do not know neither exactly how much tax money the government injected into Dr. Hwang's team nor how much private donation was made as the result of 'politicization of science' and by those who rode the band wagon, what is clear is the fact that tax payers' precious money and donation did flow into the political coffers and also flow across the pacific to be used as the lobby money for a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Would the name of renowned veterinary scientist Hwang Woo Seuk have freefell as now, had the government left him alone and had he worked with the private sector that pursue strict efficiency and economic viability, instead? The dream of original technology might not have been realized but at least we could have avoided a situation where the scientist faked his thesis while hearing him claiming doing good to 'mother nation' and 'national interest'.
Science, the journal --- which contributed in aggravating the situation --- used its fame to foment the US government support for similar projects within the US. However, as a result, it ended up going astray and that caused damage its name, self-inflicted.
As the Concord plane ended up in a museum, the science and technology driven by governments most frequently fails to progress in the long-term. Korea boasted that it was the first country to invent the metal type but never used it for printing machine. We do not even know who invented the metal type but we know the German who invented the printing technic.
The historical lesson: Let the private sector do the job
We boast of the Goryeo celadon and Chosun white porcelain but do not know who were the inventors or how to revive the craft secrete. But Lee Sam-pyung and Sim Dang-gil (ancestor of Sim Su-kwan) who were abducted to Japan are worshipped as the founders of Arita- yaki (pottery of Arita prefecture) and Satzuma-yaki (pottery of Satzuma prefecture). Why? Doesn't that represent the difference between in what happens to the technology developed by the government and private sector?
Beside the portrait of King Sejong on the 10,000 won note, we can read letters depicting the 'water clock' --- an invention which we are proud of --- but in fact we find a drawing of a water bucket instead. We cannot find the trace of Jagyuek Roo (the self-alarm water clock) made by Chang Yong-sil during King Sejong's reign. Is there anyone who knows the mechanism of it? This is the fate of government led technology.
Human creative activities, including in the field of science and technology, are best performed in a free society. History proves that they have to be completely free to develop --- not only from regulations and interventions of governments but also from rigidity of ideologies.
The industrial revolution was achieved not in France full of great scientists and government supports but in the lassie faire society of England devoid of government interventions. It was not the Soviet Union, the 'scientific kingdom' that succeeded in launching the first satellite that came to reach the economic glory but the US, the nation of freedom and the pioneer spirit. Paradoxical it might sound, but it was at the place of exile where our ancestors achieved best letters and learning, free from political interventions.
Let us consider: Are advanced nations, such as Japan and the US, where they are now because they had large amounts of science and technology funds? Or was it that they have a lot of science and technology research funds because they are as developed as they are now? Which one of the government or the private sector played the main role in having our car, semi-conductor and IT industries where they are now? Didn't the government actually hinder the private sector with its regulations and restrictions?
Free society is where source technology comes from
The recently released OECD report, Economic Policy Reforms; Going for Growth (2006), ranked Korea as one of the leading groups with the US, Japan and Switzerland in terms of achievement in R&D innovation progress. With the R&D level at 2.61 % of the GDP, and the private sector's R&D investments, Korea was ranked high among the 29 OECD nations.
But our per capita GDP still lingers in the 10,000-dollar range. In order to go pass the 25,000 or 30,000-dollar barrier to be an advanced nation, as the OECD advised, the government intervention and regulation on the private sector's technology research and development must be reduced. It is time that the government stopped the farce of hauling up more tax from companies on the pretext to support them with more R&D fund.
We must have a clear notion that fierce competition among private enterprises is not a waste of energy but an engine that energizes the overall international competitiveness of the nation. Instead of insisting to be obsessed with being a leader in obtaining original technology, we should not overlook the useful strategy of being a follower --- at least while still on the road to an advanced economy.
Again, as we have experienced while going through the Hwang Woo Seuk syndrome, original technology is not one that drops on our doorstep by injecting tax money and pushing on. 'National interest' and 'mother nation' have even less to do with it. The increased power of the Ministry of Education and of Science and Technology will only be hindrance to the fostering of creative human resources and to development of innovative technology.
Creative science will blossom and original technology will come to fruition when the long-term trend is set for more in-depth science education for non-science (humanity and social science) majors in a way that the general culture of science become widely spread, and science can be realized in politics, a free environment where even failure is valued is established. Again, human creativity is best achieved when in a society that is truly free from the shackles of political power and ideology.
Joe Yung-il (Professor Emeritus, Yonsei University, firstname.lastname@example.org)