Korea’s International Biomedical Cooperative Challenges

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Monday, December 28th, 2009

For about thirty years now, Korea has been developing a biotechnology and biomedical research community. This community has been growing and developing and is now at the stage where international research collaboration is an important next step. However, there are some unique problems that the Korean biotechnology research institutes must solve before the community can gain the full benefit that international collaboration can bring. For instance, research in Korea is an extreme example of government interference in the research process. There is a lot of pressure on scientists in the government-preferred sectors to produce results. Of course scientific breakthroughs are the best result possible, but government officials also accept Memorandums of Understanding between Korean research institutes and those of other countries. They also look favorably on patents. This has led to a few missteps on the road to a mature biomedical research community in Korea.

One Ian Fleming observed in a 2007 report on Korean biotechnology that there were some concerns with collaborative research with Korea among many American researchers even today, and the scandal surrounding Dr. Woo-suk Hwang of Seoul National University and his false claims concerning stem cells. Issues of perception can only be countered over the years by consistent first-rate work, and there is all evidence that Korea is doing precisely that.

There are also a few cultural and institutional issues in Korea that undermine the effort in biotechnology and deserve at least a passing mention. The first is the tendency of top administrators in universities and research institutes to be seduced by the reputations of overseas universities and lose sight of the research actually conducted. In some cases, according to interviewees, administrators refused to take scholars in the United States seriously, because their affiliated university was not well known in Korea. This tendency is a result of an all too human trait of projecting one's own culture onto another.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for careers in some Korean institutions to be built more through socialization than through scholarship. In such cases, international collaboration efforts are sometimes undermined by the desire to build a career for oneself through high profile exchanges, regardless of the actual quality of the research conducted. That tendency is related to an unfortunate concern in Korean society about titles. Thus there is a strong desire to establish oneself as the director or president of an institution, a position often given more social status than simply being an excellent researcher.

Another concern raised by researchers with experience working with Korean laboratories concerns the fascination in Korea with formal rituals connoting the establishment of ties. Korean research institutes and universities are known for signing large numbers of MOUs with institutions around the world and engaging in signing ceremonies that look good in pictures on the website, but have relatively little significance. The lack of follow-up concerning these signings and failure to establish a clear office with responsibility for future international collaborations often results in extremely limited

Another concern raised frequently by Korean researchers concerns the Korean government's requirement that institutes and laboratories be so frequently evaluated. Rarely are laboratories allowed to simply dedicate themselves to research for a block of time. There are no five-year research grants and too frequently reports on progress are required. Most grants require so much paperwork for every trip or purchase that keeping track of the paperwork is a full-time job.

Another obstacle to international collaboration is the low salaries paid to the supporting staff in most research institutes. Although it makes sense that researchers should receive a hire salary than the supporting staff, in many research institutes the support staff receive rather low salaries and it is difficult, or impossible to recruit staff with a strong command of English, or a background in science. The lack of staff with training in English means that researchers must do all of their work themselves when the English language is involved. The burdens that result from such a lack of institutional support force researchers to be far more cautious in their international exchanges, limiting themselves to interactions that they can handle with their own time.

Finally, language barriers were often mentioned as major obstacles to successful collaborative research. Language difficulties often resulted in the South Korean and U.S. partners not understanding each other with respect to the intent of the research project in term of direction, objectives, and expected outcomes. While South Korean researchers have instruction in English, the converse is not true of U.S. researchers. Few U.S. secondary educational instructions offer instruction in Korean and only a handful of U.S. colleges and universities do so. And as Korean as a language is seen as a "minor player" in the scientific community, there is little incentive for U.S. researchers to learn the Korean language. This, unfortunately, places the onus on Korean researchers to learn English. But as many Korean researchers receive their advanced degrees from the U.K. or U.S. this is not viewed by U.S. researchers as being overly burdensome.

hyundai eng