Sunday, January 01, 2006

Crushing Misery & Reputation Damage in South Korea

Two words stayed in my mind over the year-end holiday weekend -- "crushing misery." They were articulated by the South Korean government who vigorously promoted cloning scientist Dr. Hwang as the symbol of its biotech and entrepreneurial ascendency (The New York Times). Dr. Hwang is the man who reportedly created the first cloned human embryo and extracted stem cells from it only to be found as having faked parts, if not all. The "crushing misery" applies not only to the South Korean government who financially supported this research but to the 48 million Koreans who took pride in its nation's scientific brilliance.

The reputation of South Korea has certainly taken a hit. It is amazing how quickly the reputation of this one individual, Dr. Hwang, rubbed off on South Korea as a whole. Dr. Hwang, not entirely in agreement with findings that he fabricated results, did acknowledge one clear fact -- he deeply disappointed his own people: "I apologize to the South Korean people for creating an unspeakable shock and disappointment."

South Korea now needs to disclose all facts quickly and honestly. The government should initiate an investigation (beyond the university panel) into how this happened and set up stringent controls so that their scientific accomplishments are never questionned again. Those in charge should also work hard to reassure those still working at Seoul National University that there is confidence in their work and they should carry on.

The South Korean government and Seoul University should also look at the work of Wake Forest University professors' Charles Iacovou, Ron Thompson and H. Jeff Smith. They have researched why some team members misrepresent progress reports. Their goal was to learn whether respondents had ever intentionally withheld or manipulated information when filing their progress reports and if so, why. They hypothesized that personal interest -- career advancement or survival in a competitive workplace, for example --was a primary motivating factor. Instead they found that the project's size and complexity and one's relationship with his/her superior turned out to be the two determining factors most often cited. It would appear that Dr. Hwang did not feel that he could trust his superiors in admitting failure or lack of progress. Learning to fail should probably be at the top of lesson plans in South Korean universities.

The South Korean government would be wise to seriously explore how to repair its image over the many months ahead as this story remains top-of-mind in the media and South Koreans struggle with the challenges of lost pride.

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