Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Letter: NTU has a long way to go

By Tien-Hsien Chang

If National Taiwan University (NTU) is really serious about trying to become one of the top universities in the world, it has much to learn; that is, assuming it can learn.

Frankly speaking, close observations and interactions over the years with NTU have instilled little, if any, confidence in this writer as to how NTU -- or any other of the top Taiwanese universities -- could ever be truly outstanding.

Sadly, this is in sharp contrast with what has been happening in South Korea over the last decade. The reality is that Taiwan's academic standing has been rapidly falling behind South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and some of the elite institutes in China.

By now, there is little doubt that, at least in the field of life science research, South Korea has rapidly propelled itself into the top echelon of scientific excellence, as can be witnessed from the consistent flow of excellent Korean papers in some of the highest impact journals, such as Science, Nature, and Cell, just to name a few. This is alarming and disturbing.

The Taiwanese can, and must, learn something from South Korea in terms of recruiting the best possible academic leader to push forward scientific standing in this competitive world. Lessons abound in Taiwan's closest neighbors. For example, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of South Korea's top science and engineering universities, hired Robert Laughlin, a Nobel laureate in physics, as its president last summer.

Another prominent example, Sidney Brenner, a legendary Nobel prizewinner as important as Watson and Crick has been heavily involved in setting the policies of life sciences research in Singapore for many years.

And we are still mired in the shameless infighting over the so-called "democratic election" of an academic leader. How can a leader produced in this way be visionary and effective in bringing forward our centers of higher learning?

By nature and by necessity, science is a highly competitive and unavoidably elite-prone enterprise. Seriously, we must stop the ridiculously faction-prone "democratic" election for a university president, as is again being done at NTU.

Unless we begin to think outside of the box, the future for our higher education is, in my view, grim, if not hopeless. Something dramatic must be done, right and fast, before it is too late and we are left out forever dreaming of being "great." Greatness will not fall from the sky; it's not as simple as that.

Tien-Hsien Chang

Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics

Ohio State University

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