Science competes for attention in Myanmar’s reforms

Myanmar's isolation and media freedoms are loosening up Copyright: tap tap tap/Stephen Brookes

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Science and education were poorly served by Myanmar’s military junta and are still struggling for attention under recent reforms, writes Mike Ives.

[YANGON] Myanmar’s recent and unexpected political reforms have prompted Western powers to ease their longstanding economic sanctions against the country’s military-dominated government.

Change cannot come fast enough for the country’s science community.

The country has a high literacy rate and a long tradition of high-quality medical education, but its academic institutions have declined in recent decades under harsh military rule. Local scientists say the reforms have so far done little to change the education system and the climate for scientific research.

"The scientific base is zero at the moment," says U Aung Myint, a former professor in the department of marine science at Mawlamyine University in central Myanmar.

"People who are doing academic research have no funds at all, and the quality of research cannot be good," he told SciDev.Net in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital.

Salaries for researchers remain low while research facilities are poor or non-existent, scientists here say, and centralised management has led to an inward-facing research culture that discourages innovation.

Government reforms fall short

Before the recent reforms, the government was taking some steps to address these problems, most notably by establishing a ministry of science and technology in 1996. It has also built a network of new scientific facilities since the late 1980s, says Kyaw Nyein Aye, professor of food engineering and biotechnology at Yangon Technological University.

A July 2012 report in the state-controlled Myanmar Times noted that two of Myanmar’s flagship universities — Yangon Technological University and Mandalay Technological University — will soon embrace "improved teaching methods and well-trained teachers", who will follow an "international syllabus".

But scientists say the overall scientific climate remains grim, and that while many universities have scientific programmes, facilities are inadequate — such as labs with no equipment.

Myanmar’s minister of science and technology, U Aye Myint, has said that "financial and technical limitations" make it impossible to implement major reforms at each of the country’s 33 technological universities.

Info-Tech, a tech building in Myanmar

Official have cited "financial and technical limitations" to implementing major reforms at the country’s technological universities

rmlowe/Robert Lowe

The education system has deteriorated to such an extent that it will surely hurt the country’s development, adds a Myanmar scientist, Nyi Win Hman.

"The end result is that graduates are just people who hold a piece of paper, without really having any useful skills that can be applied in the real world," he wrote in a commentary in the Myanmar Times in August.

View from abroad

The UN said in a 2002 report that no information was available about Myanmar’s scientific infrastructure, and it urged the country to cooperate with the international scientific community.

The little information that is publicly available about science in Myanmar paints a bleak picture. For example, a 2007 study by Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI), an Italian research institute, found that in 2003 only 18 per cent of researchers had postgraduate training, among the lowest in Asia.  

"Very low civil service salaries and benefits make attracting, motivating and retaining highly qualified agricultural researchers in the public sector extremely difficult," the ASTI report says. [1]

The ‘UNESCO Science Report 2010’ found Myanmar’s investment in science from 2000 to 2002 ranged from 0.07 to 0.16 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). In 2002 it had 4,725 researchers, about 85 per cent of whom were women. Only 10 to 39 scientific publications with international collaboration were produced annually bewteen 2000 to 2008, with publications mainly in the fields of biology, clinical medicine and earth and space sciences. [2]

The promise of partnerships

Changes may be on the way as Myanmar prepares to receive more foreign aid and investment on the heels of the easing of sanctions. But Kyaw Nyein Aye says training scientists will be difficult because many graduate students still have to pay their own research expenses — up to the equivalent of US$30,000 — and often cannot partner with foreign universities because the process has so much red tape.

There is interest from abroad. In 2010, delegates from the American Association for the Advancement of Science travelled to Myanmar to look into potential research collaborations in the health, education and forestry sectors.

Meanwhile, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the United States are also forging ties with Myanmar counterparts after a visit to the university earlier this year by the country’s health minister, Pe Thet Khin.

In the June issue of Science & Diplomacy, Pe Thet Khin and Johns Hopkins researchers wrote that bilateral academic exchanges, particularly on tropical diseases such as malaria, could benefit scientists from both countries. But they also warned that the influx of foreign aid threatens to swamp Myanmar’s limited technical human resources. [3]

Making education a priority

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in parliament, recently proposed legislation that would begin freeing the country’s university system from overbearing government control, says Kyaw Nyein Aye. He added that such a law could open the way for lasting reforms.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has proposed legislation that would begin freeing the country’s university system

World Economic Forum

But many other factors will also help determine the country’s educational future, says Marie Lall, an expert on South Asian studies and education at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Lall notes that Myanmar’s new leaders, who took power only in March 2011, have an ambitious reform agenda but are busy trying to maintain peace in restive ethnic areas, achieve reconciliation with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and ensure food security amid rising inflation and widespread poverty — all on an extremely tight budget.

"Education reform will happen; [but] there’s just too much for the government to do at the moment," she says.

Lall adds that a key priority should be ensuring that Myanmar academics, who were so long isolated from the West, are able to study and attend conferences in other countries. Some civil society groups, such as Myanmar Egress, are already helping Myanmar students travel abroad, mainly to Asian countries, but such outreach is not happening on a national scale, she says.

But Ohnmar Khaing, a food security expert who in the mid-2000s earned US$30 a month working for the government, says many of the students who study abroad — even those with advanced degrees — find it difficult to find work when they return. The average salary for a senior researcher in Myanmar has increased to about US$200 a month, she adds, but it’s still not attractive.

"I’m not pessimistic," she says. But to create lasting changes, "we need to overhaul the system".

SciDev.Net contacted Myanmar officials by phone for this article, but they declined to comment or provide information.

Link to 2002 UN report on Mynamar [376kB]


[1] Stads, G-J., Kam, P. S. Myanmar. [272kB] ASTI Country Brief No. 38. Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (2007)
[2] UNESCO Science Report 2010. UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2010)
[3] Daniels, R. et al. Bringing health research to the renewed US-Myanmar relationship. Science & Diplomacy June 2012. Center for Science Diplomacy, American Association for the Advancement of Science