Friday, October 21, 2005

Little clone-tiger roaring....   posted by Razib @ 10/21/2005 01:58:00 PM

This Slate piece by David Plotz was pretty enjoyable in my opinion. Plotz highlights possible reasons why South Korea seems to be punching above its weight class in terms of human bioscience. He points to three primary factors:

  1. Lack of moral debate in regards to the ethics of the enterprise
  2. Brute force work hours
  3. A top-down command scientific culture which keeps a focused eye on a specific goal

Plotz notes that 1/4 to 1/3 South Koreans are Christian, and yet there is no strong moral opposition to human bioresearch. This highlights the difficulties in inferring values and actions based on putative belief axioms when an individual is taken out of their social context. In other words, in my experience Korean American Christians are generally pro-life Republicans, and yet the powerful evangelical Christian community in the homeland does not seem particularly focused on bioethical issues. But is that surprising? My exploration of the abortion debate, cursory as it has been, suggests that there was a significant latency in the involvement of evangelical Protestant Christians in the pro-life movement after Roe vs. Wade. In Catholicism and Freedom historian John McGreevy points out that on the religious front only the Roman Catholic Church was moving aggressively toward pro-life activism in the first years after Roe vs. Wade, it just wasn't that salient to evangelicals. In fact, an article in 1968 was published in Christianity Today, the "house" magazine of American evangelicalism, that was mildly favorable toward expanding "reproductive rights" (this was the era when the governor of California, one Ronald Reagan, was signing legislation liberalizing abortion laws on the state level). Interestingly, Plotz does not point out that the past two presidents of South Korea have been Roman Catholic. But never fear, in South Korea Christians, and in particular Roman Catholics, are in general more liberal than the median individual in the populace, even the 1/2 of the society which is not religious.

As far as work ethic goes I think Plotz has a point about the importance of raw hours in regards to research in the life sciences. But it seems to me that there are many American scientists who put in 7 day-12 hour work weeks. I am not totally convinced that the difference in work ethic can explain the relative prominence of South Koreans, especially since Americans on average put in more hours and are more productive in their labor than workers in most industrialized nations (including South Korea).

Finally, the difference in scientific culture is I think a mixed-bag. From my readings in scientific ethnography what Asian laboratories gain in focus and direction in their top-down culture and deference to superiors, they tend to lose in innovative exploration of the full space of hypothetical possibilities. Funding for cloning research is a viable option today because a few Western scientists continued to push forward in this field even when it wasn't sexy or fashionable. If you recall, back when Ian Wilmut was on the front page of every newspaper in the world it was reported that his brand of animal science wasn't popular and was seen by many as a relict of pre-molecular days. Many were skeptical that the sort of cloning he managed was even feasible (the brute force replications necessary for his positive result certainly required a "leap of faith"). If the United Kingdom had a "science czar" who had wide-ranging powers in shifting funding I strongly suspect that all the monies that went to Wilmut would have been diverted to "real" biology, that is, the molecular level work which has been the driver for a multitude of new fields within the past generation.

So overall, it's a great thing that Asian nations are pushing forward applied research. But I still think that in the near future the cutting edge of paradigm shifting innovation is going to be found in the West, where, not surprisingly, many maverick scientists of Asian origin are now based. Remember, the great theoretical population geneticist Motoo Kimura was inspired to go into the field by an American scientist, Sewall Wright (see Kimura's chapter in Evolution).