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Ministry turf wars

Jan 04,2018
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How is science different from technology? Generally, science refers to natural science such as physics, biology and mathematics while technology refers to engineering something using scientific theories. Therefore, those who study science and technology are called scientists and engineers respectively.

You may wonder why science and technology are still discussed in the new year. On Dec. 20, the Ministry of Science and ICT announced the recipients for the 2017 Korea Scientists Awards and Engineering Awards. The science prizes went to a professor at the mathematical sciences department of Seoul National University and a professor of chemical science at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology. The winners of the engineering prizes were a professor at Korea University’s electrical and electronic engineering department and a professor of chemical engineering at Pohang University of Science and Technology. The ministry explained that Korea Scientists Awards and Engineering Awards go to the researchers who research key theories in natural science and engineering and produce world-class results.

I wondered why only professors receive the awards. Does it mean only universities engage in research and development in Korea, where R&D investment compared to GDP is among the highest in the world? How about the researchers at companies that invest 50 trillion won ($47 billion) a year on R&D? Aren’t they scientists and engineers or did they not produce world-class results? Were the professors responsible for the development of all the semiconductor technologies, smartphones, batteries and solar cell technology?

I feigned ignorance and inquired at the ministry why only professors get the awards. “You are right to point it out. However, there haven’t been any recommendations from companies. It can be considered from 2018,” an official said. But they seemed to imply, “You don’t understand the reality.” So I asked the National Academy of Engineering of Korea, whose members include both engineering professors and researchers at companies. I was told not to ask the question.

After all, it is a turf war. The National Research Foundation of Korea in charge of the award operation is registered under the Ministry of Science and ICT, while the National Academy of Engineering of Korea is registered with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. Since the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy only cares about businesses, the Science Ministry has no reason to support researchers at companies. The Ministry of Science and ICT may as well be called the Ministry of Science. How about the researchers at the 25 state-funded institutes that are considered second-class citizens by the ministry?

The boundary between science and technology is being blurred. Genetic scissors — a leading genetic technology of the 21st century — is science and technology at the same time. In the age of fusion, only taking care of your “own people” cannot bring about world-class results. Hopefully, the 2018 Korea Scientists Awards and Engineering Awards will be the most prestigious science and technology prizes that transcend the boundary between ministries.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 3, Page 30

*The author is the deputy industrial news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

CHOI JOON-HO