KT Li (李國鼎), the American Experience, and basic vs. applied sciences

KT Li, the “godfather” of Taiwan’s IT sector, persuaded Morris Chang to assume the helm at TSMC. About a decade ago, I read his biography by Sophia Lutao Wang (PhD, MIT). He was born in Nangking to a father who belonged to a school that loved Chinese culture but believed the adoption of Western technology was critical to national salvation.

Wang claimed that KT Li mistakenly thought the basic sciences were more powerful than the applied sciences during wartime, leading him to study physics at Cambridge under Lord Rutherford.

He believed that China became a victim of Western imperialism because of the underdevelopment of science. K. T. did not take into consideration the difference between basic science and applied sciences for national salvation. Not until the summer of 1937 when China declared war against Japan did K. T. Li realize that basic scientists like himself had very little to offer his country at times of war. He then quickly retrained himself in engineering…

More recently, I picked up a book titled Jump-Starting America written by two professors, ironically also at MIT, J. Gruber and S. Johnson, who contradicted Wang. They argued that before WWII, America was mainly an engineering nation, and that only after the war did the USA become a scientific superpower.

By the 1940s, the United States had established itself as one of the most innovative nations on earth–based not so much on scientific leadership as on practical engineering applied to sectors such as automobiles and telecommunications. What Vannevar Bush realized is that innovation of a different magnitude was needed, specifically when it came to technology that would win the war…The United States, long a nation of practical engineers, was becoming a place that valued science and supported scientists–largely because the connections from theory and the laboratory to practical applications were becoming much more apparent.

Also quoting Vannevar Bush:

A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.

So according to Gruber and Johnson, Li was not originally wrong.

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