Challenges for research universities
By Baik Sung-gi
The 20th century was a time of tremendous changes and progresses, largely due to the technological breakthroughs in fields such as microelectronics, telecommunication, biotechnology, nanotechnology, manufacturing processes, logistics, etc. New businesses have been created and productivity has been increased dramatically, producing wealth and values contributing to the economic, social, and in some cases, even political development, spreading from the U.S., Europe, and Japan, to Asia and the Middle East, and now to all over the world including the African and South American continents.
The world population is almost 8 billion, increased by 25 percent since 2000, and if the growth rate remains, it will reach 9 billion by the year 2020. The aggravating regional imbalance in the demographics is a troubling fact: 56percent of the world population lives in Asia, 16 percent in Africa, while only 11 percent in the EU and the U.S. The disproportion in birth rate combined with aging in advanced areas like the U.S., Japan, and Europe will certainly result in densely populated impoverished regions becoming more crowded and poor. In addition, rapid urbanization spreads and threatens every corner of the world.
Unfortunately, the regional problems do not remain local anymore. Because of the strong forces of globalization, they are brought to the world stage quickly and forcefully. The worldwide Internet connects every corner of the world in real time, and free trade agreements (FTAs) between nations bring down walls of regional economics as well as traditional social and cultural barriers, transforming the world into one big market.
Globalization has been accelerated in recent years due to the rapid rise of the BRICs and the new Asian members of the G20, namely Korea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Concerns such as war, hunger, crime, and disease, which had traditionally been considered local, have now become important issues facing the entire humankind regardless of nationality, age, skin color, language, historical background, or cultural heritage, in the form of climate change, shortage of natural resources, epidemic diseases, and terror and violence.
In order to solve such global problems, we do not have a choice but to continue to grow economically, only, without upsetting natural resources, social balance, or justice. In that sense, the greatest universal challenge facing us today may be finding ways to achieve sustainable growth via scientific and technological innovation. And the universities may be the best answer for the task, for they are the breeding ground for innovation, providing the society with creativity and vitality by educating young minds, with vision and hope to create a better future.
Are the universities prepared for such a challenge? There is some homework to be done beforehand, a twofold reform of the educational programs. The first is to overcome, or preferably remove, the disciplinary boundaries. By dissolution of the disciplinary boundaries, faculty and students will be freed from the departmental cages, and studies of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary academic units and programs will be promoted and invigorated. The second reform required is conquering the regional and national boundaries imposed by geographical as well as cultural confinements, and to globalize all dimensions of the university.
The next question is how to achieve the reform. What are the strategies, and how can we better position ourselves for the challenge? How do we create an environment for our faculty to work across the departmental boundaries to fight the global issues such as energy, environment, water, hunger, materials, etc.? We at POSTECH first reestablished our roles and tasks. We redefined and extended our role as a leading educational and research institute of Korea to the regional platform of innovation, the core of a knowledge cluster, which provides various programs and initiatives promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.
Knowledge clusters, the technological innovation systems formed through local initiatives, usually have a unique R&D topic as well as core universities and R&D centers with high research potential. With the participation of companies from both inside and outside the region added, the clusters drive toward meeting the objective of providing a platform for technological innovations by putting together educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, industrialists, and policy makers of many disciplines and wide expertise. One of the best examples is the Research Triangle Park in the U.S. The pharmaceutical biotechnology Park was set up by the State of North Carolina in 1960s, with North Carolina State University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina as its core institutions.
POSTECH, too, has created such a knowledge cluster, cooperating with the local government of Pohang City and the major industry in the region, POSCO. More than 100 regional companies participated in the initial investment drive, and over 50 venture companies have been created successfully in less than a 10-year span.
Recently, the Korean government, together with the Gyeongbuk provincial government, initiated a new knowledge cluster in the vicinity of the POSTECH campus, namely, Pohang Fusion Technology Zone. The cluster is a part of the Daegu-Gyeongbuk Free Economic Zone, aiming to become a global R&BD center in biomedical equipments and devices in 10 years’ time, with POSTECH serving as its core.
Another recent and exciting development is that POSTECH’s proposal to the Korean government to create one of the two national biomedical clusters has been approved. The multibillion dollar program is expected to provide a new engine for national growth and development. POSTECH, together with five medical colleges and hospitals in Daegu City, will play the role as the core of the Daegu-Gyeongbuk Advanced BioMed Cluster consisting of translational research centers, animal facilities, clinical test beds, venture platforms, etc.
The second part of the reform is overcoming the regional barrier to transform the university into a truly global entity. Our strategy at POSTECH is to take on a responsibility that reaches beyond the bounden duty of providing education, research, and innovation, to serving as the core platform of global network as required by regional and national mission and vision.
In order to satisfy the requirements of the global network platform, the university must meet the global higher education standards, as well as globally interact, exchange and cooperate with other universities, in spite of the geographical, cultural, and social barriers. There are four components to the global standards: transparency and openness of educational and research programs as well as administrative processes; diversity and flexibility of the academic programs; excellence and competence of academic staffs and curricula, and; cultural uniqueness of global attraction.
In the era of climate change and widespread regional conflicts and instability combined with strong globalization trends, academia is facing the global challenge to present solutions to make sustainable growth without damaging our nature and environment. Scientific and technological innovations are the only answer. As such, the university has to meet the challenge by redefining and extending its role beyond mere institution of education and research. Research universities shall play the center role in promoting innovation and global network, by overcoming traditional disciplinary and regional boundaries, and by creating a truly innovative and global institute.
There is a saying that goes, “Future is owned by those who create it.” Let us work together to create a better future.