New Resolution

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

Chosun Ilbo, December 27, 2004

This time of year there is always lots of talk about fresh starts---and the difficulty of mustering resolve to accomplish them. The talk is usually about losing weight, curbing spending, or relieving the closet of excess clothes. These are just metaphors, however. What's actually on our minds is accommodating changes in our surroundings that build up over time, like stress in the rocks of an earthquake zone. We subconsciously plan out a few little shocks now as a sensible substitute for catastrophic rupture later on.

The mind of a science and technology educator is no different from anyone else's and entertains resolutions at this time of year too, except that they're about reform rather than slimming. The difference is misleading, however, for reform and slimming are conceptually similar. In one case you reexamine your eating practices, find that they weren't as balanced as you thought, and adjust them until the amount of fuel you consume matches the need. In the other case you reexamine your research practices, find they weren't as useful as you thought, and adjust them until the amount of money you consume balances the need. In either case you hunger for more than is good for you and need lots of will power to succeed.

The need for reform of science and technology education is not specific to Korea, for the dilemma is essentially the same in all advanced countries. As an economy becomes more sophisticated it needs fewer traditional engineers and university professors than it did in the past, and more broadly-educated people with a technological slant. Institutions designed to maximize output of science and engineering professionals tend create an oversupply, which then drives down prices---a shocking effect in an economy becoming all the while more "technological." Academic traditions also tend to develop rigid measures of excellence that can, in certain circumstances, become ludicrously artificial.

Reforming research universities thus comes down to making them market-sensitive. Exactly how to do this is being hotly debated all over the world, and no one has a completely satisfactory solution. The problem is easiest to solve at the undergraduate level, where the market is defined by caring parents who know precisely what they want. The way forward for public universities is widely understood to make them more like private ones in the matter of parent responsiveness---although without throwing away the mandate to make higher education accessible to students of modest means. Gradual privatization is presently the course taken by most major state universities in the US, as well as public universities in Japan. By contrast, the problem is difficult at the graduate level because government sponsorship of research creates such huge market distortions. The reform often talked about in this case is using undergraduate interest in, and engagement with, graduate research as a measure of its correct market value. Sensitivity to the artificial market created by government is also important for technical careers, and this can be achieved by requiring the research contract to cover the entire cost of the research, including graduate student support.

If research universities begin finding markets, as I think they should, future generations of students engaging in professional technical careers will have to think flexibly, boldly and artistically---the exact opposite of the conventional stereotype of technical life as "safe." I think this attitude change is the key to saving science and technology, not just in Korea but in the world.

I recently heard a Korean student play a sophisticated piano piece by J. S. Bach with great elegance and insight. I was so impressed that I asked him afterward what his career goals were. He replied that he was happy in his graduate work improving science and technology in Korea---although he did not tell me what his work was, which gave him away. I fell into a black mood, and heard echoing in my mind all that evening the final lines of John Greenleaf Whittier's Maude Muller:

Alas for the maiden, alas for the judge,
A rich repiner and a household drudge.
God pity them both, and pity us all
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall,
For of all sad words of mouth or pen
The saddest are these: "It might have been."

[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.]