This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 17 August 2015

Academic discussions sometimes get a bad rap. They are deemed tedious, even irrelevant, with unfocussed rambling on topics of only minor concern.

While a poorly prepared seminar can certainly send its audience to sleep, there is no reason to imagine that all scholarly discussions struggle to find their purpose.

Take, for example, a recent session held at the Australian National University in Canberra on Myanmar’s floods. Sparked by the imagination of the university’s growing cohort of talented Myanmar students, it drew a strong crowd for a lively Friday-afternoon seminar.

Leading the way were Lwin Lwin Aung and Aye Min Nyunt, both experienced in the practical realities of responding to natural disasters in Myanmar. Their reflections on this month’s challenges called on examples from Cyclone Nargis, which hit in May 2008. That calamity, in which estimates say almost 140,000 people died, left deep scars on the national psyche.

From their presentations, we learned that effective disaster management requires an appreciation for all manner of technical, logistical, environmental, cultural and political topics. It is the integration of knowledge from these different spheres and the mobilisation of the right resources at the right time that make the greatest difference in any response effort.

The fact is that such disasters are thankfully quite rare. A calamity on the scale of Cyclone Nargis happens so infrequently that we often fail to be prepared.

It is inevitable that other pressures and concerns, especially day-to-day problems, take up most of our attention. Preparing for an unlikely event of very high impact tends to get pushed down the list of priorities.

It is only those places with regular exposure to fires, floods and earthquakes that go about fully re-calibrating expectations, across society, to help mitigate the risks. Japan’s awareness of earthquake risks is a good example. Yet we know that in the face of disaster on an unforeseen scale, like the earthquake and tsunami that struck in 2011, there can be untold consequences.

In its own way, a country like Australia deals with annual bushfires that test the national response effort. Huge investments are made in the protection of scattered residences, which are often located in such a way as to maximise natural endowments but also heighten the exposure to summer fire hazards.

In Australia, academic research on bushfires, hazard reduction and myriad other disaster-related topics chew up vast resources. It makes sense that Australians invest in understanding their environment and making it as safe as possible.

Much of this style of research occurs in universities where hard decisions are made about funding allocations. Those decisions increasingly seek to find the right balance between exploratory studies and those that will have some more obvious impact on policy or technological development.

For the past few years, universities and other research institutions in Myanmar have been slowly rebuilding their own research capacities. This is an exciting time for the creation of a new academic culture that can be relevant to the interests of Myanmar in the years and decades to come.

As the recent ANU discussion of Myanmar’s floods showed, there is vast expertise within Myanmar’s own ranks. The challenge in the future will be finding the right structures to make such knowledge available to the people who need it.

Creating homes for this local research capacity won’t happen quickly. For a start, there is now a generation of scholars receiving further education outside the country. Their eventual return may herald a new wave of research enthusiasm.

There is also the challenge of building a culture of open debate – even about the most sensitive political, environmental, social and economic issues. The challenges facing Myanmar over the years ahead are immense and they will need a great deal of thought and reflection.

In the face of this daunting task, it makes sense for Myanmar’s decision-makers to identify a very small number of potentially high-value research streams. These could certainly straddle multiple institutions, including universities, research centres and even government agencies. The integration of knowledge would be one goal, as would an emphasis on relevance to Myanmar’s conditions.

Some areas where such research work has obvious potential include international relations, responses to environmental change and the country’s model of ethnic coexistence. Taken together, such research themes can draw on the best evidence from adjacent situations, all applied to the specifics of Myanmar’s ongoing transformation.

The Myanmar people will want to see how academic ideas can be made useful in their lives. Such research is often best when it focuses on long-term considerations and the types of problems, like natural disasters, that cannot fit into daily news coverage.

With good planning, Myanmar could create for itself an enviable array of knowledge that helps to secure its future. After the next election, making decisions about research priorities for the years ahead should be high on the agenda for Myanmar’s new government.

Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre and co-founder of New Mandala.