Watching Japan pick up two more Nobel prizes last month was a chastening experience for its arch-rival South Korea.
Takaaki Kajita was Japan’s seventh physicist in eight years to win the accolade, while microbiologist Satoshi Ōmura’s prize for medicine made him the country’s 21st science Nobel laureate since its first winner in 1949.
In contrast, no Korean scientist has ever won a Nobel – a source of much frustration and soul-searching in the Asian economic powerhouse, which otherwise competes strongly in the global high-tech world.
“Winning a Nobel prize is a national obsession,” said Jozef Vercruysse, president of Ghent University Global Campus, which is based in Songdo, a new “smart city” 40 miles from Korea’s capital on the outskirts of the city of Incheon.
Correcting the lack of science’s top award is one of the reasons why the Belgian university has been invited to set up shop in the new £26 billion business district built on reclaimed land.
The campus aims to host some 10,000 students by 2025, but the scientific research – backed by much of the £650 million investment provided to the project – taking place there is also crucial to its success.
“Ghent and Korea see the many benefits of research on our campus,” explained Professor Vercruysse, a renowned parasitologist who has authored and co-authored about 450 international peer-reviewed journal articles.
Ghent professors who teach on its natural sciences courses will receive PhD students to help further their research, while collaboration with Korean universities and industry will also be encouraged, he said.
Securing the financial clout of South Korea is a useful opportunity for Ghent to pursue a long-term research agenda that is not necessarily open to it in Belgium, where public funding restraints on higher education remain tight.
In Professor Vercruysse’s own natural sciences department, only 25 staff are paid by the university itself; the remaining 120 researchers rely on securing grants through a competitive process, he said.
“Universities in Europe have been very conservative about these international initiatives, but [this opportunity] is great for our university,” he said.
There are, of course, challenges. Ghent currently has 95 students on its courses in South Korea. It will need to raise that number to 1,000 to make teaching work out financially, while English is not widely spoken in the country.
And there was an unexpectedly high failure rate of about 25 per cent in first-year exams, but Professor Vercruysse did not view this as a major problem. “We thought it would lead to very bad publicity, but it’s been good for us in terms of recruiting quality students – people realised that to pass the first year, you need to be pretty good.”
With about 56,000 students from Seoul alone leaving to study in the US each year, there is clearly a demand for Western higher education among South Korea’s young people.
Incheon is seeking to attract six more “world-class universities” to its campus, with the lure of research funding and a foothold in Asia likely to prove quite tempting to institutions.
If these collaborations can help to yield that elusive first Nobel prize, many in South Korea will see it as money well spent.