Breakfast of Champions

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, October 21, 2004

One of the cultural oddities we foreigners notice right away here in Korea is open public hand-wringing about the demise of science and technology. Their status as shibboleths causes science and technology to be praised unquestioningly in public by both parties, even as young people turn away from purely technical careers in droves, just as they do in other industrialized countries, and for the same reasons.

I believe it might be profitable to stop wringing hands for a moment and examine the matter logically. If the problem here is the same as that everywhere else, it stands to reason that the cause is also the same. This idea flies in the face of the mythic idea that cultural superiority made science and technology, notably semiconductors, triumph here, but that could be why it's so difficult to see the solution. Cold reason says that the triumph occurred not because of culture, or because gifted students were identified and promoted by the educational system, but because high-quality labor was cheap. This being the case, it cannot be repeated or sustained in its present form, no matter how brutal the educational testing system becomes, because the cheapest labor is now found in China.

The simple explanation for the weakening of traditional science and technology career paths in Korea is that buyers are responding to a market shift that has already occurred in other developed countries. You can't have cheap labor and a high standard of living simultaneously. This analysis is fully consistent with the wealth I see springing up around country, which tells me that the shift to a high value-added economy is already underway here, and that there is no turning back.

In this new era, the way forward found by other countries is transition to post-industrial economics. This has important educational consequences. A key characteristic of such an economy, breathtakingly rapid change, prevents a person from becoming safe by mastering a technical specialty. Even medical knowledge can, and does, go obsolete. That is why, for example, my physics students at Stanford so often abandon technical careers entirely, including medical careers, and jump immediately into finance or business. If this transition takes place in Korea, as I think it will, even the idea of technical education as a low-paying, but safe, career path will make no sense. This, in turn, means that the practice of identifying talent very young and training it only in a technical specialty also makes no sense. We must let it go.

Science and technology will continue to be central to our post-industrial lives, especially in Korea, so it is natural to ask what kind of educational investment parents and governments should make to supplant the old one. I have an answer to this question, synthesized from my experiences as a practicing scientist. It has two parts. The first is that technical training at the undergraduate level is, for a particular class of student, the best path we know to becoming a powerful globalist---provided that it is modified to encourage independence, risk, language ability, and interpersonal skills in addition to familiarity with machines. Science and technology, in other words, are the door to becoming an educated man, not the other way around. The second is that research at the graduate level should be refocussed on cutting-edge creativity, as opposed to the production of workers, for this is the true engine of the post-industrial era. These two investment objectives are not independent, for the courage to work on new things of great importance is exactly the right model for a prospective globalist, just as youthful curiousity is the right model for making discoveries.

Everyone wants to be a champion, a hero who wins all races, even intellectual ones. That is why "Breakfast of Champions" became so legendary as an advertizing slogan for the cereal Wheaties. It's an idea for all time.

Let us not waste further time trying to "save" Korean science and technology as they are now, but instead join the rest of the industrial world in creating them afresh. The old model is a supper of meat and potatos. The new one is a breakfast of champions.

[Copyright 2004 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]