What About Our Golf Course?

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

Chosun Ilbo, August 31, 2005

I am increasingly concerned that Korea may be headed for a science and technology "hangover" - a time when some technical investments made in the past may have to be reduced or eliminated because they have become economically irrelevant. This is not a happy thought for me, particularly since I run a technical university at the moment, nor is it advice. The decision to close government science establishments, keep them, or build them afresh will ultimately be made by Koreans themselves on grounds of economic self-interest. I just want to help people think realistically about the problem, and perhaps save themselves some unhappiness by dealing with it sooner rather than later. I see plentiful signs that Korea is presently de-industrializing the way the US did twenty years ago, due to competition from China. If this is so, the economy's need for science and technology, while greater than it is now, will also be radically different. As it changes, business and government will inevitably become indifferent to obsolete activities, regardless of what we academics say or do.

Scientists lead very protected lives and thus often cannot see trouble coming that is perfectly obvious to everyone else. The result can be bitterly amusing. I will withhold the name of the country in which the following story takes place for fear of offending friends. Versions of the story occur routinely in all countries, however, including the US. A high ranking official from the Ministry comes for a formal luncheon with several government Laboratory Directors. They listen respectfully while he lectures them about changing economic conditions, the need for public accountability, the need to focus on value, the need to compete with other demands of tax revenue, the need to respond to industry, and so forth. After thirty minutes he pauses and asks for questions. There is an awkward silence, after which one Director hesitatingly raises his hand and says, "Sir, is there any progress on that day care center we asked for?" Another then asks, "And what about our golf course?"

Behind the irony of this story is the dangerously wrong idea that science and technology are valuable for the sake of themselves. In a modern economy, especially a de-industrializing one, science and technology, while very beautiful, are commodities that have economic value only when they are used to serve and control markets. If you invest in them without fully understanding this principle, you can squander resources on subsidies while your competition simply steals the result and uses it against you. Of course, Ministries of advanced countries do understand this principle, which is why they lecture us.

If it comes to pass that Korea downsizes its science and technology portfolio it will face the problem of maintaining morale of technical people, especially those already in the system. Morale cannot just be ignored because the Korean economy is now so advanced that it needs a steady flow of technical talent for growth, albeit a smaller flow than it did in the past. The solution to this problem is straightforward, although politically very tough: concentrate future investments in universities rather than government laboratories, link compensation to university benefit rather than seniority, and liberalize consulting rules. The first of these causes migration to a stable business, teaching, in which the number of workers is limited by market demand. The second removes incentives to stop innovating. The third enables scientists to begin developing the complex web of relationships necessary for prospering in a less subsidized world. In parallel with these actions it is necessary to abandon the notion that scientists sacrifice for the good of the state, and replace it with the one that scientists are artists and entrepreneurs with certain legal duties to their employers but ultimately responsible for their own economic wellbeing.

In contemplating these frightening things, Koreans can gain comfort from the fact that other developed countries went through such downsizing and came out scientifically stronger than ever. The details of what each country built up and pared away were customized to its particular economic situation and do not necessarily apply to Korea, but the larger principle of focusing investment does. These examples show that science and technology can be saved by making them economically relevant. Doing so is tough on us scientists, but most of us are strong, individualistic people who are up to the task.

[Copyright 2005 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.]