Why no Korean Nobel laureates?

Until now, 790 Nobel Prizes, undoubtedly one of the world’s most admired honors, have been awarded to people in 50 countries. Within Asia, 21 laureates came from Japan, five from China, and even seven from India, whose GDP per capita is only $1,600. The U.S. is at the top with 320 Nobel Prize winners, which is about 40 percent of all Nobel Prizes awarded. Korea, on the other hand, has had no such achievements in the field of scholarship, aside from the former President Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel Peace Prize. It is rather an embarrassing lack of achievement for this economic powerhouse. Why is there such a lack?

The following is a summary gathered from various experts in their fields. First, the research and development (R&D) budget allocated by the government is too little. The U.S. has the largest total R&D budget, followed by China, but Korea’s R&D budget ratio against GDP is greater. We spend about 4 percent of GDP on R&D, which is only second to Israel, and our R&D ratio is almost twice that of the U.S. Therefore, this assertion is essentially false.

Second, government policies have hindered innovation in R&D. Fostering innovation is an essential factor in producing achievements worthy of the Nobel Prize, but the emphasis in short-term research that produces immediate results prompts researchers to select low-risk R&D topics. The government’s interest is only focused on research achievements during the budgeting season, and if no results appear in the three-year frame, the budget is cut and projects dissolved ― this is rather persuasive reasoning.

Third, the choice of R&D topics chosen for government funding is based on personal networking, rather than objective evaluation of the topics. This is partially true, but I believe the problems also lie with the professors themselves. The Nobel Prize laureate in physics, Peter Gruenberg, professed that the most important factor in achieving the prize has everything to do with how long one can enjoy and focus on the research. I wonder how many of our researchers are keen on their research alone.

The term “polifessor” is widely known in Korea. It is a hybrid word derived from “politics” and “professor” to describe academics whose interests are directed to politics rather than scholastic achievements through research and teaching. If their core profession ― research and teaching ― is left on the back burner, what will come out of the universities and scholarships in Korea?

I believe it is right for the academics to leave their university posts behind for the younger colleagues to have proper chances for scholarship when they pursue interests outside the ivory tower. Many “polifessors” have already lost the passion for scholarship and teaching. It is certainly not advisable to sustain the current system that allows these “polifessors” the opportunity to come back to academia if things go wrong in the political realm. If one chooses to involve themselves in politics, one should be resolutely determined to “burn the bridge” that one just crossed for “no return,” just as Ahn Cheol-soo resigned from his post at Seoul National University before declaring his entrance into politics.

In the case of the U.S., the President often offers core government posts to academics, but many reject the offer. Such academics are determined, well-respected scholars who are dedicated to scholarship and scholarship alone. It is not difficult to see academics working night and day in pursuit of academic goals, and it is no coincidence that their achievements are often awarded with the highest honor ― a reason that allowed the greatest share of the Nobel Prizes to be awarded to American scholars.

If academics in Korea’s higher education are more interested in politics and wealth, the Nobel Prize is still a distant future. Unless significant improvements are made in the reality of Korean universities where “polifessors” are prevalent, Nobel laureates may be hard to find here in Korea for another couple of decades.


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