Brazil and ESO: where things stand right now

Featured images: Artist’s impression of the E-ELT. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

In 2009, Brazil showed interest in being a state member of the ESO (European Southern Observatory), one of the current leading astronomy consortia that you probably already know of (if you don’t, go here). If Brazil managed to get the membership, it would mean a huge boost to our astronomy and a lot of opportunities for our companies to participate in manufacturing the instruments. ESO’s website has an extensive dedicated FAQ about this affair. Brazil does already have access to the facilities in Chile to do science, but we will only be able to participate as a state member if we paid 130 million euros. This money is of essential importance for the construction of the E-ELT, the 40-meter diameter European Extremely Large Telescope, for which things have already started with a bang in the Andes of Chile. This telescope will be our most powerful eyes for the observation of extrasolar planets, the first objects of the universe, supermassive black holes and the search for dark matter and dark energy.

Now, how important is Brazil’s money for this endeavor? As I said before and reiterate here, it is essential. The funding or E-ELT was divided in 3 parts: one from ESO’s budget, one from the other state members and one especially from Brazil. These guys are counting on us. This is because doing astronomy today is very expensive, especially if you want to look at the unexplored frontiers of the universe, so we need consortia, and we need the collaboration of many countries to make things happen. And this actually make me very proud of being an astronomer, because it’s a science that brings nations together.

However, you probably are already aware that the process of Brazil becoming a state member of ESO has been dragged along for quite a while, to say the least. And the problem is in our side: the government is still analyzing the membership, even though the former Minister of Science and Technology, Sergio Machado Rezende, asked for it in 2009. Something similar is also happening in our country’s decision about becoming a member of CERN. Unfortunately, that ESO’s FAQ I linked before does not contain an updated information on what grounds the decision are at the moment. It does say that Brazil was supposed to ratify the membership by 2013. But, so far, we don’t have an answer, and this is kinda embarrassing.

So, this is where things stand right now: the membership to ESO is under the appreciation of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies), our equivalent of a Parliament. More specifically, it has to be approved by 3 commissions, 2 of which have already approved it, and so far it is waiting for the feedback of the rapporteur on the Commission of Finances and Taxation. The project is filed under the code PDC 1287/2013, and the most updated information can be seen here, but it’s in Portuguese, and I’m pretty sure there is no translation for this website. The process is already in regime of urgency, so at least they have made it clear that it is “due for yesterday” (a common expression around here). The good news is that the project has been approved by all (too many) of our bureaus, but, and here comes the bad news, since May 2014, it has been stuck at the Chamber of Deputies So far, it was presented 2 times in their sessions, one in May 29th and another in June 5th, and both times the project was not appreciated. They don’t state a reason for it, but I assume it was because they ran out of time in the session before doing the appreciation.

So, when can we expected a final decision about all this? Well, I’m afraid there is no way for me to give more information on that. An explanation on all the delay is that in July and August, there was that thing called World Cup, and then the deputados probably went for winter vacation. This October, there were elections here in Brazil, so politicians have been a bit busy on self-promotion. It’s not a justification though. I sure do hope that these guys make things work until the end of the year, so we Brazilian astronomers don’t need to feel ashamed anymore of this postponing.

The astronomical community is making its part on the job too. There has been a lot of buzz in trying to push things forward. A group of young astronomers already sent an open letter to the deputies stating how important the membership to ESO is to science and innovation in our country. Some astronomy and industry leaders have also made it clear (if your Portuguese is good or you don’t mind using Google Translate: more on that here and here, for example) that this project has been delayed too many times, and if Brazil is kicked out of ESO (as it happened with ISS), it would be a huge loss to the country’s science and technology. On the other hand, professor Dr. João Evangelista Steiner, of University of São Paulo, points out that there are other means for Brazil to advance in astronomy, for instance, by participating in the Giant Magellan Telescope (apparently, a deal between the state of São Paulo and GMT has already been done, more here too), on which the allocated telescope time would be proportional to the investment instead of competing on unequal grounds with countries that already have an upper-hand with cutting edge astronomy (which will be the case with E-ELT). However, professor Dr. Marcos Diaz, also from University of São Paulo, says that the competition is healthy for scientists to make better and better astronomy.

One of the biggest cons of the membership is that it would be a significant hit on the country’s public money reserve. 130 million euros is equivalent to ~164 million dollars, or ~398 million reais, in today’s exchange rates. That’s a lot of money, and one of the reasons why the project is being analyzed so carefully and delayed so many times. According to the Brazilian Astronomical Society, on that regard, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has decided on June 4th of 2014 to propose to ESO an attenuation on the price of the membership, but so far there is no more information on that. Brazil’s last budget for scientific research in 2014 was ~10 billion dollars (more on that here, in Portuguese), among public and private money. But regardless of the price tag and the said inequality on the competition for telescope time, Brazil has made a commitment, and backing away from the E-ELT could mean to the rest of the world that our country is not ready to dive into such scientific endeavors.

I have signed up to receive an e-mail anytime the project gets updated (for instance, if the commission approves, disapproves or delays it), so I will write here on the blog every time something new comes up. Fingers crossed.

Brazil and ESO: where things stand right now

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