Take the boat up the mountain

Yoon Seok-jin
The author is the president of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST).

I recently attended a conference to discuss countermeasures to the escalating US-China war for technological hegemony. The reviews presented were nothing new. Participants discussed the creative and stimulating research environment, an innovative ecosystem to foster unicorn businesses, and issues related to laws and systems that cannot keep up with new technologies.

All agree on the need to reduce intervention and increase autonomy. But excessive caution stopped the discussion. Some expressed concern that “the boat could end up in the mountains”. I couldn’t take it anymore and had to say, “Now the science and technology boat should also be able to climb mountains.” »

After two years, the distancing measures were removed. We still have the inconvenience of wearing masks, but the Covid era has reached a turning point. In the free time I finally found after a long time, I watched the historical drama “Vikings”, a story about the legendary Viking lord Ragnar Lothbrok who ruled what is now Denmark and Sweden at the beginning and middle of the ninth century.

Among the many adventures of the Vikings, the episode “Portage” about the attack on Paris is the most memorable. As Ragnar Lothbrok’s forces are blocked by fortresses and chains in the narrow channel of the Seine and must retreat, he stops the ships in a place surrounded by cliffs. When his aides advise him to find another place of plunder, he declares: “It’s not Paris. We will hoist the ships over the cliff and pass the mountain. We will go to Paris. As Paris did not expect the ground attack, it was finally besieged.

In 1966, President Park Chung Hee established the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) for scientific advancement. As Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world at the time, the choice may seem like a ship heading for the mountain to economists at home and abroad. But half a century after choosing the future over solving immediate hunger, Korea has gone from a country with few resources to the tenth largest economy, bigger than Russia and Australia. Korea also became a cultural powerhouse, practically fulfilling the dream of Baekbeom Kim Gu (1876-1949), a highly respected Korean independence activist and statesman. Today is glorious. But is it enough?

The future generation which is afraid of becoming poorer than the generation of its parents may think that today is a dystopia. Late last year, the Ministry of Science and ICT chose 10 key strategic technologies for Korea’s rebound. These are the original technologies that we must not only improve, but also excel in order not to fall behind in the technology competition.

The problem is that apart from secondary batteries, Korea is about 60% of the most technologically advanced countries in most fields, including AI, protons, space and aeronautics. If we don’t change, the only way is downhill. The first step of change is to empower our researchers to take on challenges that seem daredevil today, but exceptional for the future. The way to open up a new horizon is to allow unlimited ideas and support.

KIST now pursues innovation to break the mannerism of risk-averse research and development, as evidenced by its “98% success rate”. In particular, the “Grand Challenge” is a challenge with outlandish ideas. Selected tasks are evaluated based on process excellence. The program supports researchers who are not afraid of failure and have the conviction to pursue the necessary studies.

The evaluation system where a grade is determined by one or two points has been abolished. Researchers are now allowed to request the deferral of individual assessments to challenge larger research projects. The rivals of researchers aiming to develop breakthrough technologies are not colleagues in the lab next door, but the world-class academics who have dedicated their lives to the subject. To friends who say, “We’re doing pretty well,” and recommend a comfortable path rather than pursuing innovation, I mean, “Our goal is not to become one of the developed countries. We want to be a leading nation by taking our science and technology ship over the mountain. »
Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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