A fierce political blow to Brazilian astronomy

In 2009, Brazil showed an interest to become the first non-European member of ESO, the European Southern Observatory, one the the most successful international efforts in astronomy. In the end of his mandate as minister of science and technology, Sérgio Rezende was one on the front of the membership agreement proposed to ESO. Since then, the consortium has been allowing Brazilian astronomers to use its facilities in Chile before the agreement is completed. Great scientific feats of astronomy were made with the participation of Brazilian astronomers, such as the discovery of the oldest solar twin and even the detection of a ring system around asteroid Chariklo. Both studies were featured in international scientific publications.

Even though ESO has already given carte blanche for the membership of Brazil, the process is still stuck in political bureaucracy. Currently, it’s been more than 4 years since the initiative, and it is still being held under procedure by the plenary, in state of urgency. ESO has been waiting patiently for the political decision because it is going to cost Brazil 130 million euros (according to this FAQ), or 800 million reals (according to the plenary, or US$ 283 million), and this money is going to be used for the construction of E-ELT, the biggest telescope ever built (its primary mirror will have a diameter of 39 m).

However, all this effort for the development of astronomy and science is under severe threat: on February 5th, the member of the parliament Fábio Garcia (which ironically is affiliated to PSB, the same political party the Sérgio Rezende is part of) blocked the appreciation of the project in the plenary, saying the following:

At this moment of crisis that our country faces, we can’t pay 800 million reals in commitment with astronomical studies. Meanwhile, the Brazilian people suffer with lack of quality in health, education and public safety […] I asked for the removal of the project from the agenda in order to buy time and enlighten you [the plenary] about this agreement. I intend to convince you that we have other, more urgent, issues to be solved.

Now, let’s analyze these affirmations by Fábio Garcia, point by point.

1. “At this moment of crisis that our country faces, we can’t pay 800 million reals in commitment with astronomical studies”

Really? Let’s see: Brazil has 513 members of the parliament, and the annual cost of each one is, according to Transparência Brasil, R$ 6.6 million (US$ 2.3 million). Supposing that the ESO’s fee of 800 million reals would be paid in equal parts (which it won’t) over 10 years (which it will), each part would cost Brazil the equivalent to 12 members of the parliament per year. On the other hand, in 2014, the federal government spent more than 820 million reals in investments on equipment and materials for the CNH Industrial Latin America. Just in one year! Actually, still in 2014, the federal government invested 95 billion reals on individuals and companies. One 10th part of ESO’s payment would cost 0.08% of the total investments done in 2014.

2. “Meanwhile, the Brazilian people suffer with lack of quality in health, education and public safety”

This is pure demagogy. Yes, in fact a lot of Brazilians suffer with poor health, education and public safety, but this argument is used only as a distraction. In 2014, the federal government injected 93.9 billion reals to public health, 91.7 billion reals to education (in contrast, only 9 billion to science and technology), and 8.5 billion reals to public safety. If each 10th part of ESO’s fee was equally divided to each of the three sectors, it would result in a raise of 0.028%, 0.029% and 0.314%, respectively to the budgets of health, education and public safety.

The problem is not the invested quantities, it is the way they are spent. And it is exactly at this point that we scientists keep on hammering: the money spent on science is not an expenditure, it is an investment. The return of this investment is sufficiently important to make other BRICS countries elbow each other on the queue for ESO membership, if Brazil defaults. Sadly, one of the things that Fábio Garcia fails to see that science does not only need scientists, and that astronomy is not only made for and by astronomers. As an example, the National Astrophysics Laboratory (LNA) is composed of 27 technicians and technologists in engineering and science, 5 in precision machining, 13 in observatory coordination, 6 in maintenance services, 58 employees on management and logistic support, and only 22 astronomers. As we can see, astronomy (as any other science) employs a diversified and very specialized workforce (positions that Brazil lacks profoundly).

Brazil would be the first non-European country to be a member of ESO. Credit: Ssolbergj on Wikimedia Commons.

I also do not understand why Fábio Garcia separated astronomy from education. To me, both are so intimately bonded that it is impossible to keep them apart. This is something that I keep repeating on my texts: education is not only to sit in a stupid chair for hours inside four walls. Education is much more than that: it is engaging with learning. And astronomy is one the most successful sciences in doing that. If, on one side, physics and mathematics can be discouraging (more for a cultural reason, in my opinion), astronomy manages to inspire and rouse people’s curiosity.

Astronomy unites people. Maybe one the most remarkable natures of this science is the international cooperation (the whole point about ESO, by the way), and I have wonderful experiences with that. During my exchange period through the Science without Borders program, I had the pleasure of studying and living with people from all over the world, all of them aiming towards the same path: exploring the universe. If that is not education, I don’t know what it is.

3. “I asked for the removal of the project from the agenda in order to buy time and enlighten you about this agreement”

I shudder to think that Fábio Garcia wants to “enlighten” the other parliament members about this, given that he doesn’t seem to have even read about the Brazil/ESO agreement. Much of the international scientific and astronomical communities wait for the ratification of the agreement. We can’t spent any more days, we are losing time!

Brazil has already benefited from the ESO facilities, who is letting us do so even before the agreement is finished. Additionally, our country has already agreed to pay part of the E-ELT construction, and the consortium (along with the entire astronomical community) waits anxiously to start this enterprise. If Brazil give up now, that would mean to default one of the most prestigious scientific agencies of the world, and another stigma for Brazil’s young science (along with defaulting ISS and CERN).

4. “I intend to convince you that we have other, more urgent, issues to be solved”

Contrary to Fábio Garcia, I think that the development of science, technology and education should be indeed priorities of Brazil (as I said, I can’t keep education apart from all this). Public safety and health may have urgent issues to be solved, but the investment in astronomy is not an antagonist. In fact, these aspects go hand in hand in developed and developing nations. For instance, some of the techniques used today in medicine (such as the imaging of internal parts of the body) are a reality because of astronomy. Technology that is common place today, such as digital cameras attached to cellphones and safety cameras, are also products of investments in astronomy.

I understand Fábio Garcia’s want to make Brazil a better country, and I think he acts with good intentions. However, his lack of information about the subjects (international relations, science, technology and their implications) and his short-sight can be harmful to the efforts made by Brazilian science. Developed and other developed countries give extreme priority to education, science and technology, and if Brazil wants to reach that place someday, we need to take these issued more seriously that we do today. Otherwise, we will always be the “country of the future”.

On February 13, Fábio Garcia stated on his Facebook page that he had a talk with the astronomers Marcos Diaz (University of São Paulo) and Gustavo Rojas (Universidade Federal de São Carlos), in which they could show him the aspects of the Brazil/ESO agreement. Garcia said that the federal government needs to fulfill the agreement and also the obligations with states and municipalities. He proposed to have reunions with the Ministries of Finance and Science & Technology to deal with these issues.

This is good news, and as I said, Garcia seems to be well-intentioned. And it is good to know that he is open to discussion. However, the decision must be taken as soon as possible, given that the ratification has been delayed countless times, dragged around for more than 2 years. All this gives the Brazilian scientists an optimism injection, but it is important to not let our guards down. Astronomy is still seen, sometimes, as a superfluous and frivolous science, but it’s been one of the most important tools of humanity since the birth of agriculture. We have to fight to warrant Brazilian science a place on the global scene.


Featured image: artistic depiction of the ring system around asteroid Chariklo, a discovery that had participation of Brazilian astronomers. Credit: ESO, L. Calçada, Nick Risinger

 

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A fierce political blow to Brazilian astronomy

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