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The Birth of Modern Science in Cambodia

ISSUE 2020
No 08
Release 31st March 2020
By CHHEM Rethy*, MD, PhD (Edu), PhD (His)

The rise of Angkor civilisation from 9th to the 13th century CE was the result of divine inspiration but the remarkable building of Angkor’s temples, infrastructure, university and health systems was made possible only because of the strong scientific culture that prevailed at the royal court. Kings were advised by their teachers and surrounded themselves by a highly educated elite made of mathematicians, engineers, and astronomers.

The Angkor “scientific” enlightenment predated similar phenomenon observed in Renaissance Italy during the 16th century CE. Respect for “science” was observed before the term “scientist” was first coined in 1833 by the English polymath, philosopher and historian of science William Whewell.

Turning to modern times, a nascent science emerged briefly in the post-independence period when the first modern universities were founded with a view to educate and train young Cambodians to participate in the development of the nation. Math, physic, chemistry, engineering teaching flourished. Attempts to use nuclear technology to boost agriculture was taken with the technical assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the mid 60’s, that sadly was prematurely interrupted by war.

In more recent years, leading think tanks such as the Cambodia Development Resource Institute ensured that evidence was used to support the value of science and technology in decisions affecting the economic and social development of Cambodia. Policies on industrial development, STEM education, vocational training, and Science and Technology have been adopted.

Coordinating and implementing policies across these areas has finally been achieved. The Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation, a national institution was established to design an inspiring national ecosystem for science and technology. The new ministry is expected to coordinate strategies and programmes that provide policy guidance, legal frameworks and proper resources for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) to flourish. The era of “orphan” science is over.

Hundreds of Cambodian scientists, highly educated in reputable universities locally and abroad can finally operate in a cohesive ecosystem driven by national needs in view of economic and social development. The nascent clusters of scientific research are currently dispersed in a few reputable local universities without interaction with each other because of the lack of a clear national science agenda. A few government funding programmes had been recently launched in order to help young scientists and entrepreneurs to get seed money to explore their innovative ideas.

Coincidentally, this development occurs alongside Cambodia’s efforts to accelerate the digital transformation of its government and economy in an effort to reach a fully developed country status by the year 2050. This national drive calls for an overhaul of the mindset in terms of learning new knowledge whether it happens inside or outside the school system. AI algorithms, big data and industry 4.0 processes will bring revolutionary changes in the way we learn. Deep cultural changes that lead to the “scientification” of Cambodian citizens are necessary; the appearance of scarecrows in the Cambodian countryside will not tame the COVID-19 pandemic, but science will.

Schools and universities are now all closed to protect students and staff from the threat of the pandemic. Many businesses will follow. Students and staff will be forced to work from home. COVID-19 has become the most disruptive reformer of the education system and of the organisation of work. Online learning and telework are now the top priorities for government and the private sectors to address. Proper digital infrastructures and its legal and policy frameworks are yet to be determined. Finally, if science and technology are to provide the impetus for national development, all policies, related to science or not, have to be founded on strong scientific evidence, established by scientists in order to inform policymakers.

The launch of the Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology, and Innovation in the midst of a pandemic brings a light of hope to Cambodia, not because local science and technology can provide solutions to the current situation – but it will help build STI capacity for Cambodia to better prepare and respond to future disease outbreaks. Above all, this new STI capacity will allow Cambodia to rebuild its economy and social coherence in the post-COVID-19 era.

As Galileo observed long before our time: “If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night, it would look to you more splendid than the moon”.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.