Anyone who thinks academics lead sedentary, sheltered lives should take a look at Nam-pyo Suh’s schedule. Suh is president of KAIST – the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology - Asia’s answer to MIT and probably the best university you’ve never heard of. Even the most seasoned of business travellers would find Suh’s timetable punishing. When he’s not touring the world to forge connections with other universities, and tirelessly raising funds everywhere from Korea to the US, he’s being summoned to the Blue House to give the Korean president the benefit of his wisdom on educational reform.
Suh took up the post at KAIST two years ago. A distinguished professor of mechanical engineering, he left behind a 36-year career at MIT to come back for a five-year stint to transform Korea’s top science university and catapult it into the world’s top 10. He’s tackled the job with gusto and made changes across the board, from cutting professors who aren’t up to scratch to implementing a new policy that all teaching will be in English by 2010. “Some teachers are reluctant because English isn’t their first language,” he says. “But it’s important that all the classes are in English even if every student in the class is Korean – the science world has chosen English as its international language.”
According to Kate Thompson, a young professor of engineering who joined KAIST from MIT last year, the pace of reform there is dizzying. “The changes implemented every day are unbelievable,” she says. “You could never do this much, this fast anywhere else.” Founded in 1971 as the country’s first science graduate research centre (and backed to the hilt with government money), KAIST was always intended to be an elite institution for the country’s best scientific brains. Anyone lucky enough to make it through the ferocious competition process was treated with kid gloves, given a full scholarship and exempted – unlike every other Korean male – from national service. Today KAIST is the top technology school in Korea – now with a full undergraduate programme and 100bn won’s (€63m) worth of research projects funded by government and business.
Since 1989, it’s been based in Daedok science complex in the city of Daejon, 150km south of Seoul. With its clipped lawns and uniform blocks of dormitories, libraries, cafés and department buildings, KAIST has the feel of a new town. Daedok is Korea’s R&D capital, and links with industry are an important part of KAIST’s success.
The largest department in the university is Electrical Engineering, which is responsible for the National NanoFab Centre – one of the top facilities of its kind anywhere in the world. Here, advances in nanotechnology are attracting the interest of every big player in the electronics industry. Samsung gave the department €12.5m, largely, it seems, to get first dibs on the graduates. “Samsung wouldn’t exist as it does today without KAIST,” says Professor Yang-kyu Choi. “Most Samsung executives are KAIST graduates and so are a quarter of its researchers.”
In January, Suh inked a deal with NASA to collaborate on developing satellites and other space technology. Korea has come late to the space race – its first satellite was launched by a team from KAIST in 1992 – but it now has plans to launch a probe to the moon by 2020.
In April, Korea’s first astronaut, So-yeon Yi, was launched into space in a Russian Soyuz. She had been awarded her doctorate in bio-engineering at KAIST only two months earlier. The students at KAIST are in the country’s top 0.1 per cent. Three quarters come from science high schools – educational hothouses where pupils study for up to 16 hours a day. Unlike every other university in the country, KAIST is excused from having to take students’ test scores into consideration with Suh recently introducing a rigorous three-hour interview for would-be students. “A nice GPA is good,” says Choi, “but real talent lies in creative thinking.”
Design is now a compulsory subject for all KAIST undergraduates, the idea being to encourage students to think independently and beyond their textbooks. Kun-pyo Lee is the head of the school’s small industrial design department. “There are 300 design schools in Korea,” he says. “It’s a huge number – we’re only outnumbered by China – but 90 per cent focus on the way things look, not how they function. Here we combine design with other disciplines – planning, marketing and working with engineers.” Student projects are on display in the corridors – everything from walkie-talkies and door handles to shoes and gardening equipment. It helps that some of the cleverest engineering minds in Korea are on hand to solve problems.
“People said these changes couldn’t be made in Korea, but the number of applicants has risen,” says Suh. “Good people want to go where the competition is tough – it’s all about human psychology.” There are challenges: persuading academics and foreign students that Korea is a good place for them to come is one of them. Then there’s Korea’s brain-drain problem. Koreans are notoriously obsessed with education – schoolchildren put in some of the longest hours in the world but then disappear en masse at PhD level to US universities. The number of Koreans studying abroad rose from 24,315 in 1985 to 190,364 in 2006. KAIST’s own professors prove the point – 90 per cent were educated abroad.
“We need to hire a lot more people,” he says. “And there are many applicants, but we want to make sure we have the right people.” Suh wants to increase the number of professors from 450 to 700 by 2010 and he wants 20 per cent to be non-Korean. “We’re not as big as MIT,” says President Suh, “so we need to concentrate on areas in which we excel.” He is encouraging students and professors to undertake high-risk, high-return research that might fail but might also yield the significant breakthroughs that will raise KAIST’s international profile.
He’s excited by a current research project to convert ageing ships into solar-powered desalination plants for countries where water is in short supply. “Don’t you think this is fascinating science?” he says. “We’re solving technological and social problems at the same time.” Science, he says, should be working towards practical solutions to global problems. “One can dream a lot in science, but our work should have a useful application. In the end, humanity should be better through what we do.”
1970: USAID requests that Frederick E. Terman – ‘Father of Silicon Valley’– head a survey team to establish the Korea Advanced Institute of Science (KAIS).
1971: KAIS founded as the first graduate research school in science and engineering in Korea.
1980: Establishment of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
1989: Move from Seoul to Daedok campus, Daejon.
1990: Graduation of first Bachelors
2007: Inauguration of President Nam-pyo Suh.
Undergraduate, computer science
“I was studying at university in Kiev when one of the KAIST professors visited and suggested I come here. There are four other Ukrainians here. It is very competitive; there is a lot of pressure. Korean students are used to working hard – it’s in their blood. I do miss home but when I went back for the summer last year, I was desperate to come back here. Europeans don’t know much about schools in Asia. Some people thought I was coming to communist North Korea.”
A Young Kwak
“I was at school in Peru where my father was working and thought about going to university in the US. But I had heard about this elite school, so I applied and got in. KAIST is one of the few universities in Korea which has a place in a globalised world.”
Down to a science
KAIST’s Humanoid Robot Research Centre, developed Hubo, Korea’s first humanoid robot, which has toured the world since 2005. The current version – unnervingly, with Einstein’s head – talks, walks and shows emotion. The team is working on the next Hubo, and this one will even be able to jump. The robot will make its debut in December. Also in the news is Ryong Ryoo, professor of chemistry, who last November was made National Scientist. This means €1m a year from the state for six years, making his lab one of the best funded in the country.
In 2007, Times Higher Education ranked KAIST 48th in its list of technology institutes. Suh wants it to be in the top 10 by 2011. Its annual budget of €224m is generous by Korean standards but the top 10 US universities have budgets of over €1.3bn. Fund-raising in the private sector isn’t easy in Korea but thanks to Suh’s efforts KAIST has received two significant donations from the US: €1.6m from Neil Pappalardo, founder of medical software firm Meditech and €6.4m from Korean American businessman Byung-joon Park.