Why does Korea lead the world in cloning research?

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Oct. 19 2005 1:15 PM

The Seoul of Clones

Solving a biotech mystery: Why South Korea leads the world in stem-cell research.

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(Continued from Page 1)

The work culture is not merely relentless, it is also collectivist. In American and European labs, Cibelli says, researchers jockey to test their own hypotheses, run their own experiments, and publish their own papers. At Hwang's lab, scientists take their orders from the top, work ferociously to carry them out, and let the glory fall to the boss. This is likely the product of Korea's Confucian tradition. Confucianism teaches that workplaces should be run as benevolent hierarchies, with younger and junior people obediently taking guidance from seniors. Stem-cell research depends much more on technical proficiency than blue-sky brainstorming. It fits well with a collectivist approach that focuses the entire scientific team on a single goal.

Korea reveres scientists more than we do. Science is trendy in Korea. It attracts the nation's best students. There's no nerd derision. Hwang Woo-suk is a celebrity in a way we can't imagine an American scientist could be. The national law-enforcement agency assigns officers to protect him. Korean Airlines flies him around the world for free. The minister of science and technology ranks at the top of the South Korean Cabinet—as high as the secretary of state or treasury in the United States. While most foreign scientists who study in the United States end up staying there, nearly 90 percent of Korean scientists end up returning home, despite much lower salaries.

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The reverence for science helps cloning research, in particular, because cloning requires a huge supply of fresh human eggs. For one recent paper, Hwang and his colleagues used nearly 200 eggs collected from Korean women. To gather such a supply of eggs in the United States would be practically impossible, legally dubious, and financially ruinous. But Hwang has a waiting list of Korean women who have volunteered to donate eggs for free, to help his cause.

Korea had a rotten 20th century—occupied by Japan, split by war, driven into a miserable poverty. (At war's end, Korea was one of the world's poorest countries.) Koreans felt acutely the shame of being booted from the ranks of important nations, of being supplanted by China and Japan. It is hard to overstate just how driven Koreans are to make Korea a great nation. This nationalism has helped Korea nudge aside whatevermoral objections to cloning have popped up. Though Korea has banned cloning for reproductive purposes, it has enthusiastically supported the research cloning that so troubles American conservatives. The ethical concerns in Seoul are minor, weighed against Korea's chance to become the world leader in the next great biotech industry.

Still, the most important reason why Korea leads the cloning race has nothing to do with the nation. The majority of Korea's stem-cell and cloning advances have been made by a single man, the profoundly brilliant, enthusiastic, and energetic Hwang. Korea's government, religion, culture, reverence for science, nationalism, and skinny chopsticks may make it possible for the nation to be a world leader in this research. But it is an individual genius who is turning his nation's potential into actual stem cells.

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