What does the 2021 Nobel Awards mean to South Korea

We wanted to understand what the Nobel Prize awards mean for South Korea, how research here compares to other leading countries and figure out what South Korea need to more of, or do better, in order to win a Nobel Prize or two. Interestingly,...

We wanted to understand what the Nobel Prize awards mean for South Korea, how research here compares to other leading countries and figure out what South Korea need to more of, or do better, in order to win a Nobel Prize or two.

Interestingly, and not at all surprising we found there are plenty of South Korean researchers that are very well versed on the research that was chosen winners in the different categories this year and that are active in the same areas and in some cases colleagues and friends with the awarded laureates. As a matter of fact, we found the same thing when we did this last year.

10 December the Nobel Foundation is awarding diplomas and medals to Nobel Prize winners, and there are events taking place before and after that we can follow here.

South Korea invest more than most other nations on R&D as share of GDP and is poised to become number one (and note Sweden on 3rd), and South Korea is number 5 in absolute numbers with 100 bn USD invested in R&D in 2019. Large parts of these investments are from private sector industries, like Samsung that invested almost a fifth of that, 18.75 bn USD in 2020. But public spending is also very significant and President Moon pledged to double government spending from 2017 to 2022 (nice overview in this article), and important to win a Nobel Prize in the Science categories, there is massive spending on basic science. All this makes it extra exciting to follow the development of quality in research in South Korea.

We invited experts from Sweden and South Korea to introduce the laureates and their research and had a discussion about what made their research great, what environment enabled their excellence, what personal characteristics are common for truly great researchers, and where is South Korean research in this mix?

To find Korean speakers we got help from our partners: Korea Academy of Science and Technology, KAST; Korea Development Institute, KDI; and Korea Comparative Literature Association, KCLA. We received generous funding from several Swedish companies, from KAST and from Korea Literature Translation Institute. On the Swedish side we were supported in many ways by Umeå University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Gothenburg University and Lund University, and Ewha Womans University provided the space for our event.

Photo by Embassy: Johannes Andreasson, Deputy Head of Mission Embassy of Sweden; Kim Eun-mee, President Ewha Womans University; Daniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea; Anders Hektor, Science and Innovation Counsellor; Han Min-koo, President Korea Academy of Science and Technology

As you can see it involved many people and was pretty ambitious, and we went on for 7 hours in three different sessions. You can find all sessions here, and on this link is the whole 7 hour deal in English and below are some pointers to times in it where you will find the different discussions.

Focus on excellence more important than anything

Professors Mathias Uhlén and Sun Wook Hwang (starting at 26.17) introduced the medicine award and in the discussion that followed Uhlén emphasized that it’s not the size of a team or a lab or its funding that is the most important, but that promotion of excellence in research is the most important, something that professor Sun agreed on. The professors also agreed there remains pioneering work to be done in Medicine and Life Sciences in the coming decades and that young scientists today should find this an exciting area to be. Professor Uhlén praised the quality ofresearch in South Korea and expected Koran Nobel awards to emerge in the future.

Researchers need perseverance

Professors Ludvig Lizana and Insik Kang (at 1.02.00) introduced the physics award where research on complex systems and climate systems conducted several decades ago was awarded. Sometimes it takes a long time for scientific results to be proven and win acceptance which means the scientist either need to have a great confidence in their findings or a supporting environment, or both. Funding is a challenge to maintain that kind of work and from the discussion it is also clear that it is difficult to maintain a contrarian position in a culture that rewards harmony. Continuously publishing will benchmark your science and is a better way in any research culture to conduct good research.

Good research should inspire good research

Professors Sven Lidin and Hyeyoung Jang (at 1.40.40) introduced the chemistry award which is another area where “old” research played a role as one of the awardees used 25 years old research and drew new conclusions. Inspiration for research can come from many places and a question was if the Nobel awards inspire new research. Professor Lidin believes so and hopes that an award has the potential to put the search light on an area.

Our 10-minute panel discussions are effective in the online format but alas too brief to pursue all interesting lines of discussion. With more time I would have loved to hear Professor Jang talk more about working close with Professor List, one of the laureates, and to share about the Brain Korea 21, a program to strengthen the capacity for outstanding Korean graduate schools and next-generation researchers.

Balanced economic science without exaggerated interpretations

The award in Economic sciences (at 2.52.50) followed the sessions on the Sciences awards and presentations and contributions to a panel discussion were made by professors Gauthier Lanot, Yoonsoo Park, and Joseph Han. The format for the sessions on economics and on literature are 20 minute presentations and a 30 minute discussion affording both more content and discussion, perhaps unfair to the sciences sessions with 10 minutes for each presentation and the panel, and still not long enough to cover everything 😊

All speakers had their own experience of using Natural Experimentation, the topic for the awards, and the presentations turned out to be effective lectures to understand the methodological development and empirical research. Interesting from a science point of view is that some results from this research (on the effect of changes in minimum wage) were not all that welcome when it was published in the 1990’s as it was counter to the established view and being economics there will be political interest in getting a particular result where half of them would be satisfied and the other half not. The turmoil this created still exist and the award has rendered politically motivated articles in Swedish press and a South Korean context of frustration was present on stage.

The tension of scientific findings and political consequence made for an interesting discussion in the lines of a call for both robust science and the ability of the field to answer questions to policy. The research by the laureates was considered balanced and it’s important to stick to what the research finding’s say and not exaggerate in any direction.

Economics, it was said, is the most robust of the social sciences because it has frameworks such as price and other quantitative elements with models that can be tested. With more data becoming available there is more empirical research and abilities to analyse them are constantly getting better such as with big data and new technologies. All speakers agreed AI may become useful but is not yet a panacea for economics research. Much challenges remains to work on for those considering doing research in economics.

Translation of stories of displacement will find readership in South Korea

The final session covered the literature award and presentations (at 5.55.40) were made by Professors Maria Olaussen, Seokho Lee, and In-Hwan Ko. Tthe laureate is not yet translated to Korean and many were unaware of him as an author. The topics for the laureate should however not be foreign to Koreans as he pursues issues of displacement and hardships where the Korean peninsula have its own historic experience in a not very distant history. Korean literature have its own diaspora of authors, like the laureate, that are reflecting on this kind of experiences. The guess is that he should find a broad readership in south Korea and elsewhere from his accessible prose and capturing stories.

2022 will be even better!

From the Office of Science and Innovation and the Embassy, we hope Abdulrazak Gurnah will be translated to Korean for all to enjoy. We also want to express our deep appreciation to all speakers that contributed to the sessions, far from all of them have been mentioned here, and you can see the full program on the Nobel Memorial Program website and in a table below.

For 2022 we look forward to welcoming Swedish speakers to Seoul and to have all speakers present on stage and a big audience in the room. Let’s agree that this will be possible and see you all here in Seoul!

Written by Anders Hektor & Yeji Hong

Program

Sciences Session
Host  Daniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea  
Partners  Min-koo Han, President of the Korea Academy of Science and Technology Hans Adolfsson, President of Umeå University Sigbritt Karlsson, President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology Eva Wiberg, President of University of Gothenburg Erik Renström, President of Lund University Eun Mee Kim, President of Ewha Womans University  
MedicineMathias Uhlén, professor in microbiology at KTH Royal Institute of Technology Sun Wook Hwang, Professor and Head of Department of Biomedical Sciences, Graduate School, Korea University  
PhysicsLudvig Lizana, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Umeå University Insik Kang, Professor Emeritus of School of Earth and Environment Sciences, Seoul National University  
Pause  ‘Come Collaborate with Sustainable Sweden’ A promotion video from the Swedish Embassy in Seoul  
ChemistrySven Lidin, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Lund University Hyeyoung Jang, Professor at School of Chemistry, Ajou University  
Closing Daniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea  
Economics Session
Host  Daniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea  
PartnersKiwan Kim, Senior Vice president at Korea Development Institute, KDI Hans Adolfsson, President of Umeå University Sigbritt Karlsson, President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology Eva Wiberg, President of University of Gothenburg Erik Renström, President of Lund University Eun Mee Kim, President of Ewha Womans University  
Presentation and panel discussionGauthier Lanot, Professor at Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics, Umeå University Yoonsoo Park, Professor at the Department of Economics at Sookmyung Women’s University  
Panel discussion Joseph Han, Research Fellow at Korea Development Institute, KDI  
Closing  Daniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea  
Literature Session
Host  Daniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea  
PartnersWoosung Kang, Vice Chair of Korea Comparative Literature Association, KCLA Hans Adolfsson, President of Umeå University Sigbritt Karlsson, President of KTH Royal Institute of Technology Eva Wiberg, President of University of Gothenburg Erik Renström, President of Lund University Eun Mee Kim, President of Ewha Womans University  
Presentation and panel discussionMaria Olaussen, Professor in English at the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Gothenburg Seokho Lee, Professor at School of Humanities and Social Sciences at KAIST  
Panel discussion  Inhwan Ko, Professor at Humanitas College, University of Kyung Hee  
ClosingDaniel Wolvén, Ambassador of Sweden to the Republic of Korea