The Importance of Promoting Research for the Future of Cambodia

Liseinet Din
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Research plays a vital role in developing a nation by advancing our knowledge and understanding of social issues and solutions to them. In line with the increasing movement toward a knowledge-based society, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and its development partners introduced several research-related policies and initiatives to promote research activities in Cambodia, particularly at the higher education level. However, research in Cambodia is still confronted with many challenges. Drawing on secondary sources, this chapter first defines the term research from different perspectives. It then discusses the importance of research for Cambodia and highlights some key challenges to promoting research in the country. The chapter concludes with some recommendations to promote research in Cambodian society.

Keywords: Research; promoting research; challenges; higher education; Cambodia


Cambodia went through a dark period during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) that killed about 2 million innocent Cambodian people, including political leaders, professionals, and academicians (Becker, 1998). This brutal regime also eradicated the country’s education system, causing massive destruction to educational infrastructure. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has tried to restore its education system at all levels as part of the national rebuilding process. For instance, Cambodian higher education has rapidly expanded since the late 1990s when private universities were allowed and public universities could offer fee-paying programs to respond to the limited public funding for higher education and the fast-growing number of high school graduates (Kitamura et al., 2016).

Along with the continuous expansion of higher education in Cambodia, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and various development partners have also endeavored to enhance the quality of higher education and promote research in Cambodia. Notably, MoEYS introduced a number of research-related policies, such as the Policy on Research Development in the Education Sector in 2010, the Master Plan for Research Development in the Education Sector 2011-2015 in 2011, and the Policy on Higher Education Vision 2030 in 2014. The World Bank, a key development partner, has played an active role in improving higher education quality in Cambodia through various projects, including two major projects worth USD 115.5 million: the Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project 2010-2015/2017 and the Higher Education Improvement Project 2018-2024. One of the objectives of the two projects is to improve the quality of research, mainly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and agriculture, at five targeted public higher education institutions (World Bank, n.d.). In 2020, MoEYS unprecedentedly announced the Research Creativity and Innovation Fund (RCI Fund) to promote research in Cambodia with small grants available to Cambodian researchers (Heng, 2020b).

Despite all of these efforts, Cambodia’s research performance is still low compared to other countries in the region. Based on the number of research publications indexed in the Scopus database over the last decade (2010-2019), Cambodia was ranked 8th among the 10 ASEAN countries (Heng, 2020a). In terms of the quality of higher education and training, Cambodia was ranked 75th out of 100 countries, while other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, were ranked 23rd, 27th, and 28th, respectively (World Economic Forum, 2018). With the current performance, research needs to be further developed and promoted so that Cambodia can move toward a knowledge-based society.

This chapter argues for the promotion of research in Cambodia. It begins by defining the term “research” from different perspectives. It then discusses the importance of research for Cambodia before highlighting some key challenges to promoting research and offering recommendations to encourage research in Cambodia.

What is Research?

In general terms, research is a process of seeking to explain and find answers to an inquiry. Socrates (469-399 BC), a well-known philosopher, said, “Life without inquiry is not worth living for a human being.” Inquiry plays an essential role in the research process because it can push humans to acquire knowledge or experiences. Boudjelal (2020) stated that curiosity is an intrinsic feature of humans; it inspires us to make discoveries and explore the unknown. More systematically, Okokpujie et al. (2018, p. 7) defined research as “the quest for truth with the assistance of study, perception, examination, and test.” With an emphasis on finding solutions to social problems, Ajoku (2006, as cited in Chikwe et al., 2015) sees research as the process of searching for knowledge, truth, similarities, relationships, and solutions to problems through systematic data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Research is, therefore, an intensive and extensive quest for solutions to problems in our society (Chikwe et al., 2015) and is key to advancing human society.

The Importance of Research for Cambodia

Nowadays, many developed and industrialized nations across the world have prioritized research development as a way to strive for a robust knowledge-based society. For instance, since 1999, New Zealand has implemented a tertiary education manifesto, called “Nation Building: Tertiary Education and the Knowledge Society,” as one of the national strategies to foster national development through promoting research and knowledge creation (Scoop, 2004). In particular, New Zealand’s universities have invested heavily in research and development.

To date, Cambodia is still a developing country, seeking to actively integrate itself into other regional and global economies to achieve its national goals of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050 (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2018). Achieving these ambitious goals require clear and effective strategies and collective efforts from all stakeholders. Concomitantly, the role of research must be prioritized to help Cambodia realize its goals. 

Research, by its nature, contributes to knowledge creation and human capital development, which are indispensable components for developing a nation. While creating new knowledge and understanding, involvement in research promotes critical thinking and analytical skills necessary to solve social problems. On the academic side, new knowledge and understanding created from research stimulate further studies and ultimately contribute to building qualified human resources for the future workforce. Recognizing the essential role of research in human capital development, MoEYS introduced several research-related policies, such as the Policy on Research Development in the Education Sector and the Policy on Higher Education Vision 2030, to improve higher education and promote research in Cambodia.

Research also influences government policies in response to social issues and governance. Research plays a vital role in identifying problems and seeking directions to solutions. Research plays an important role in the policy-making process because it helps to better understand social issues, set out effective policies to address them, and propose the best ways to deliver the policies. Moreover, research helps the government to understand how concerned stakeholders feel and respond to each policy, enabling the government to reflect on its policy implementation (Boa et al., 2010). As the welfare of many Cambodians is still in a vulnerable condition due to various social issues (Chheang, 2014), the government needs to implement effective policies in response to those social issues. Government policies need to be planned and evaluated based on research, as it can identify specific issues and generate accurate information to formulate appropriate policies that can help improve living conditions and contribute to social development.

Research is also crucial for economic growth. According to Khan (2015), boosting research and innovation is essential for developing nations to sustain economic growth. Accurate data collected through well-planned research on the national and global economy can guide policy planning and implementation to cope with risks that a country faces, especially for a transitional economy such as Cambodia. Thus, research can identify loopholes in the economy and what changes need to be adjusted to minimize risks and maximize profits. Moreover, policymakers and practitioners can use research results to modernize and innovate the economy and strengthen regional and global competitiveness.

Challenges to Promoting Research in Cambodia

Promoting research has remained a critical challenge for many nations. It is indeed a challenging task to accomplish, especially for low-income and middle-income countries, since reinforcing research requires funding and structure of the knowledge system (Kearney, 2009). Cambodia is not an exception. Many fundamental challenges have restricted the promotion of research in Cambodia. Some of the challenges include lack of government funding, limited research capacity and involvement, insufficient incentives for researchers, and lack of national publications and research platforms (Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, 2016; Heng, 2020b; Heng & Sol, 2021; Kwok et al. 2010).

Concerning state funding, Cambodian higher education institutions do not receive enough funds from the government to carry out research and innovation projects. MoEYS has received USD 1 million each year from the Ministry of Economy and Finance for research activities since 2015 (Sok & Un, 2018). The availability of this fund is essential to promote research activities in Cambodia. However, the budgets have also been used for other purposes rather than promoting research in the country (Sok & Un, 2018). This funding problem lies within the bureaucratic model of financial management that is not responsive and flexible in practice, making the monetary capital for research activities scarce (Mak et al., 2019).

The limited research capacity and involvement among Cambodian faculty members and students are also a pressing challenge. Eam (2015) surveyed 444 Cambodian lecturers at ten different universities, of which three are private. Results showed that 65% of the lecturers were not involved in any research over the past five years. Most higher education institutions in Cambodia are teaching-oriented and do not have clear policies and mechanisms to support and promote faculty research (Kwok et al., 2010). For Cambodian students, they have barely experienced research until they reach university (Heng & Rautakivi, 2020). Even at the university level, students have limited opportunities to be involved in research activities or projects because research is not perceived as the core mission of most Cambodian universities (Kwok et al., 2010). Students themselves do not enjoy writing reports and drawing up research projects, including writing literature reviews (Borin, 2020).

Thus far, Cambodia has yet to become a knowledge-based society and is not readily adaptive to research involvement. From the culturalist perspective, cultural traditions have influenced the mindset of students, which may have affected how they perceive research. Asking teachers questions to validate knowledge can sometimes be regarded as rude or inappropriate; therefore, students often accept new knowledge without question. This cultural influence may have prevented the spirit of inquiry, which is essential in research, from developing among many Cambodian students (Kwok et al., 2010).

The lack of research incentives has also significantly impacted researchers’ motivation and commitment to research. This is a major challenge to promoting research in Cambodia. Some critical issues include the lack of financial support from national and institutional levels, time constraints, limited recognition for research, and insufficient research infrastructure (Eam, 2015; Kwok et al., 2010). With the current conditions, most researchers would use their time to do other activities to earn extra income (Ros & Oleksiyenko, 2018). 

Along with other challenges, the lack of national publication and research platforms has also weakened the development of research in Cambodia. Therefore, efforts need to be made to increase national publication outputs and platforms (Hanover Research, 2014; Heng & Rautakivi, 2020). However, this work requires a strong commitment from the government to acknowledge the need for developing research and encourage national research outputs by establishing national research centers or other platforms (Marchant, 2009). In Cambodia, research publications tend to come from researchers who have intense interests in research (Heng, 2020b), and most of their works were published overseas. Only a few local universities have promoted research activities and can produce research outputs. At the national level, the Education Research Council (ERC) was formally launched in March 2015 and institutionalized via Prakas No. 658 in July 2017 to promote research activities through insightful and innovative ideas in the education sector (MoEYS, n.d.). However, only a limited number of research publications have been made.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Promoting research in Cambodia is crucial for the future of the country because research contributes to creating new knowledge and understanding, building vital human resources, guiding government policies and governance, and boosting economic growth and competitiveness through innovation. Despite continuous efforts made by MoEYS and the development partners, research development in Cambodia is still at its initial phase and confronted by many challenges that need to be addressed systematically and collectively.

To ensure that research in Cambodia continues to grow, all relevant stakeholders at different levels have indispensable roles to play. The government should work with all stakeholders to address the current challenges and place research development as a national development priority. The government should also allocate more funds to nurture a research culture and build more specialized research facilities. Promoting national publication and research platforms will also promote awareness among the public on the importance of research. Moreover, MoEYS should consider establishing a research bonus system to draw a great deal of interest among scholars, academicians, and researchers and show respect and recognition for their contribution to research development in the country.

At the institutional level, universities shall play a leading role in promoting research and publication. University curriculum should instill research interest in students and build their research capacity so that they can contribute to research development in Cambodia while studying and after entering the workforce. Collaboration between faculty members is also vital to promote research activities and productivity. Therefore, universities should endeavor to foster research communities within their institutions and beyond as well as initiate a wide variety of research projects or competitions to raise public awareness.

Individual scholars, researchers, and academics also have a vital role to play in enhancing research in Cambodia. They should be actively involved in research activities to advance their careers and contribute to knowledge creation in their fields. As financial support for research activities is still significantly limited, those who have a strong motivation for research should look for collaborative opportunities to enhance their research productivity and contribute to promoting research in Cambodia.


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