Building a research culture in Cambodia

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It is a cliché to say that Cambodia lacks a research culture. It is also not uncommon to hear phrases such as “no reading culture,” “no research culture,” or “limited research” in the context of Cambodia.

The Cambodian government, though the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and other relevant ministries and institutions, has endeavoured to promote reading and research in the country; however, a lot more need to be done.

To provide guidelines on how to promote research, MoEYS has published several national research policy documents such as Policy on Research Development in the Education Sector and Master Plan for Research Development in the Education Sector. It has also established a policy think tank for education, called Education Research Council, which was launched in 2015. The Ministry has moreover organized annual National Reading Day to promote a reading culture in the country.

The National Reading Day, first celebrated in 2016 and is held every year in March, is a great initiative by MoEYS to promote reading and writing among Cambodians. The event has received increasing interest and attention from the public, particularly students and youth. To build a research culture, it is important to encourage a reading culture first.

With respect to higher education research, in late 2010, MoEYS launched a five-year World Bank-supported project, entitled Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project (HEQCIP). The project, which was extended and completed in September 2017, was aimed at improving the overall development and management of the higher education subsector as well as enhancing quality in research, teaching and management in Cambodian higher education.

A stocktaking report of the HEQCIP project, published in 2015, showed an increase in research activities among academics in higher education institutions in the country, thanks to the availability of research funding. However, there were issues of quality and sustainability.

Specifically, few funded-research studies resulted in conference presentations and peer-reviewed publications. The majority were non-peer reviewed research reports or were disseminated through local workshops. Sustaining academic research within Cambodian higher education is “very challenging,” the report concluded.

Cambodia ranked 118th out of 138 countries for its overall innovation capacity in the 2017 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum. Last year the Kingdom’s overall competitiveness performance was ranked 110th out of 140, while Thailand stood at 38th and Vietnam 77th globally.

In terms of scientific publications, Cambodia lags behind most of other ASEAN nations. A recent research study published in an international journal called Scientometrics shows that Cambodia’s research performance in the field of language and linguistics was ranked 8th in ASEAN, outperforming only Myanmar and Laos. The same performance pattern has also been reported by researchers in other fields of study. The Kingdom was, moreover, found to have a relatively low rate of research collaboration with countries within the ASEAN region and beyond.

The lack of research culture in Cambodia should be of great concern and thus should receive more serious attention from the government and relevant stakeholders. Considering Cambodia’s aspirations to become an upper-middle income and high-income country by 2030 and 2050, respectively, greater focus of attention must be on research and human capital development. Cambodia needs educated and skilled labour force to drive its economy and meet new social and economic demands.

In today’s knowledge-based world, the ability to produce, disseminate and utilise knowledge is of critical importance. Knowledge is no doubt the engine of economic growth and the driver of productivity. Therefore, it is crucial that the Kingdom prioritise research and seek ways to foster and develop a research culture.

One way the government should do to promote research is to allocate more public budget for research and development. It may be very challenging, given the limited budget the government has at its disposal; however, as the saying goes, when there is a will, there is a way.

Besides focusing on the country’s key development priorities such as infrastructure development, the Cambodian government may begin to invest heavily in research and human development. This is in line with the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Rectangular Strategy Phase IV. Perhaps a larger amount of money derived from grants and loans from donors and development partners should be directed at improving the Kingdom’s research and innovation capacity.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, together with key higher education institutions, should begin implementing the Royal Decree on academic promotion which was approved by His Majesty the King in 2013. Currently research undertakings and publications are the business of individual lecturers or researchers. There seems to be no clear support mechanism or reward scheme at both national and institutional levels. Motivation for research and publication therefore relies on the passion of the individual. To encourage academic research and scientific publications, a competitive and transparent reward and promotion scheme must be in place.

Universities should, in this regard, begin to incorporate research and publication as one of the main criteria in their procedures for the recruitment, evaluation and promotion of prospective and existing academic staff. By doing so, greater emphasis and value are placed on academic research and publication, which in turn would lead to increased interest and motivation for publication and research.

At the individual level, researchers and scholars who possess research knowledge and skills should take pride in their profession and ability to conduct research and publish their research findings. They are the hope for Cambodia’s long journey towards a knowledge-based society. And they have responsibility for educating, mentoring, and inspiring the next generation of Cambodians to become researchers or research-oriented individuals. However, it is important that their work and efforts be appreciated and valued, not only by their students but the whole society.

It is only when all stakeholders at every level, particularly those at the macro and meso levels, begin to earnestly engage in concrete and realistic actions to foster and support a research culture in universities particularly and in society generally that Cambodia can hope for a vibrant research culture required to enhance the country’s competitiveness in the regional and global arena in the 21st century.

Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Queensland and an Australia Awards scholar.

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