Francesco Obino, Zaw Oo and Edgard Rodriguez introduce a report on the state of social science research in Myanmar.

Introducing ‘Doing research in Myanmar’

The recent report, ‘Doing Research in Myanmar’, published in June 2020 by the Global Development Network (GDN), kick-started a flurry of important conversations about the state of Myanmar’s research culture and institutions, and what can be done to strengthen them.

Locally-grounded social science research remains key to democratic debate and planning for sustainable development, not only in Myanmar, but elsewhere in the developing world. Since 2014, GDN has been investigating the challenges of doing quality social-science research in developing countries. Working in partnership with local research institutions, who act as Principal Investigators, GDN’s Doing Research program aims to analyse weaknesses and opportunities that can be addressed through better-informed national research policy. In 2018, the GDN and Canada’s Knowledge for Democracy – Myanmar (K4DM) Initiative joined forces to include Myanmar in a new cohort of countries (along with Bolivia, Indonesia and Nigeria) undertaking Doing Research Assessments across 2019 and 2020. At the time, as part of an initial scoping exercise, GDN held a public talk at the Parami Institute in Yangon and attended other events that facilitated exchange with relevant stakeholders and potential collaborators, such as the Centre for Economic and Social Development (CESD). GDN has documented the progress within the new cohort of 2020 Reports in a recent article by Asia Research News.

A methodology for understanding national research systems

The Doing Research Assessment, a methodology developed by GDN, is designed to deliver an in-depth analysis of a country’s research system, and allow comparisons with other countries surveyed. It combines literature review, a survey of three main groups (researchers, research administrators and policy actors) and interviews with key informants. The data is captured in 54 indicators, which describe social science production, diffusion and uptake in the country. Ultimately, the reports identify ‘levers of change’, based on the evidence collected and discussed during the study, that can strengthen the environment for doing, circulating and using social science research in a country.

The reports also aim to spur research capacity and debates on the state of health of social science research systems. In December 2018, GDN hosted a methodological inception workshop with all four national teams in Delhi, GDN’s headquarters. This was followed by an intense year (2019) of desk research, interviews, and local consultations by each of the participating country teams, including Myanmar’s CESD. In October 2019, all teams met again in Bonn to take stock with their international advisors for a presentation and writing workshop on the side lines of the 19th GDN conference “Knowledge for Sustainable Development: The Research-Policy Nexus”. Reports were to be launched in early 2020 but delayed due to the start of the pandemic.

Implementing the Doing Research Assessment in Myanmar met with a number of challenges: from lengthy authorization processes to the lack of familiarity of the research community, particularly in higher education, with concepts such as research policy, research council, ethics review processes and mentoring. The institutional research landscape proved extremely fragmented, with 174 higher education institutions scattered across the country, but only very few individuals formally trained in research, and less than 2% of academics in public universities having published a paper during their tenure. These aspects were discussed in a global public webinar on 27 May 2020, which launched the Myanmar Report, the first of the series, in conversation with institutions such as ANU Myanmar Research Centre—advisor to the Myanmar team–and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)—a key funder of research in the developing world.  Around 80 people from 8 countries took part in the 90-minute session, which revolved around the key fact that Myanmar’s social research community still lacks resources, despite nearly a decade of political and economic reforms, and growing demand for evidence-based policymaking.

Key findings

The report launch began with a welcome by Canada’s Ambassador to Myanmar, François Lafrenière. “Capacity building is key to restoring Myanmar’s research culture” he said. “Canada is committed to evidence-informed policymaking and central to this is a focus on gender equality. We believe that gender equality is one of the most powerful tools to reducing poverty and as 75% of researchers in Myanmar are women, this is not just a value statement – it is a value-for-money statement.” Ms Ngu Wah Win, Senior Policy Coordinator with CESD, dedicated the study to the founding figures of research in Myanmar.

The Report finds that, as in other developing countries, the government continues to overlook social science in the pursuit of national development objectives and specific policy goals. Although the country received a healthy injection of research funds with the new government, most of this has gone to science, technology, engineering and maths. In 2017, social sciences and humanities had a mere 0.38 percent share of total investment in research, as opposed to science, technology, engineering and mathematics with 32.8 percent, agricultural sciences with 32.6 percent, medical sciences with nearly 30 percent, and natural sciences with 4.2 percent (See Main Findings below).

International donors play a critical role in national development in the country, but this often means that too little attention is given to growing the local research system, especially in social sciences, in favour of producing consultancy-type analysis. The ‘Doing Research’ report is part of a series of ongoing initiatives that try to redress this imbalance. At the May 2020 global webinar, Dr. Zaw Oo, Executive Director of CESD said that the increased flow of funds after the country’s democratic election has led to increased interest in the research system but resulted in less local ownership over the research agenda. Reflecting on the challenges of accessing both data and permissions for the study, he spoke about the importance of informal networks in Myanmar’s research landscape and said they needed to be recognised and incorporated into frameworks for developing the broader ecosystems. “Knowing about our past helps us to understand the present”, he said.

Main findings from the Report

  • Research funding for social sciences remains low on the list of government priorities.
  • Research funding disbursed to higher education institutions and other public research institutions come with stringent budgetary rules, which makes it difficult to manage research projects.
  • There is currently no national research policy in Myanmar.
  • As ‘civil servants’, academics in public universities are often burdened with administrative duties, the supervision of students or heavy teaching loads.
  • Women make up 75 per cent of researchers in Myanmar.
  • There is limited collaboration or partnership among government research institutions, public higher education institutions and other relevant government departments.
  • There is no formal peer review culture in Myanmar, reflecting the lack of a conversation about research quality.
  • Popular opinions supersede research evidence in policy discussions.

The Report is available online with a summary in English and Burmese. The Report and global launch have helped create a 20-minute podcast by Asia Research News, another partner of the K4DM Initiative, to present a range of voices from key stakeholders to discuss Myanmar’s knowledge ecosystem today.  The Report is a stepping stone to a more vibrant debate at a time when Myanmar is embarking in a reform of the country’s entire education sector. The Levers of change identified in the report seek to expand and prioritize this debate.

  • Establish a national research body that will oversee, facilitate, coordinate, support and document research activities conducted in Myanmar, and a structure that ensures that sufficient attention is paid to social sciences as part of the national research system.
  • Set up a robust and functioning research evaluation mechanism or peer review system for research in higher education institutions.
  • Prioritize investment in research capacity, infrastructure and funding for higher education institutions
  • Empower local researchers to provide relevant and timely technical assistance to policymakers.
  • Enhance collaboration and partnership among government research institutions, public higher education institutions and other relevant government departments.
  • Increase the budget for research and improve flexibility.
  • Effectively coordinate international funding for research in Myanmar
  • Strengthen international funding support to boost quality, ethics and equity in the research system. 

(Image courtesy of K4DM Initiative.)

Francesco Obino is Head of Programs at the Global Development Network (GDN). His main research interest is the interplay of institutional development and organisational functioning for actors that focus on producing research across the global North and the global South.

Zaw Oo is Executive Director of the Centre for Economic and Social Development (CESD), an independent think-tank dedicated to providing evidence-based policy research, results-orientated knowledge sharing, and people-centered public advocacy to support the peaceful and sustainable transformation of Myanmar.

Edgard Rodriguez is a senior program specialist who leads the International Development Research Centre – Global Affairs Canada funded Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM) Initiative, aiming to build the capacity of leaders to carry out research and evidence-based public policy.