Woke up a co-owner of ESO’s facilities

The news is not that fresh, but I just want to register the information if someone missed the buzz of the last days or if this text was retrieved from an old and well-preserved server on the distant future when humanity has deceased. In case you didn’t know, Brazil is in its way towards being the first non-European country to be a member of ESO, the European Southern Observatory. The whole process started back in 2010, when the Ministry of Science & Technology proposed an agreement to ESO. At that moment, Brazil was enjoying fruitful times, with a steadily growing economy and a general improvement on the people’s lives, especially the poor. Things were good, so the 270 million euro investment on membership didn’t seem like too long of a stretch.

However, investments in science and technology are also slow to get on going in this country. It is now 2015, dollar and euro went skyward, our economy is stagnated, and there is a climate of political uneasiness. Things are rough now. Even so, the slow pace has led us to what seems to be a happy ending. In March 19th, the Congress finally approved the investment (which they generally called a cost) on ESO and the membership. The political strife between the federal government and the [mostly] opposing congress may have been a blessing: it is said that they only approved the membership because president Dilma Rousseff was showing signs of backing off of the agreement.

After going around back and forth through a series of bureaucratic assessments, the process went to the Senate, and on May 14th, they also approved the investment on ESO. As someone has put out on Twitter: Brazilians woke up next morning being the co-owners of the most advanced ground-based telescopes on Earth. Today, May 19th, the Senate has promulgated the approval through the Diário da União.

The Senate didn’t put much of a fight to bar the entrance to ESO. In fact, they seem to be in accord about the benefits to our country on becoming a member. Here’s what is said in the official statement by the Senate (my own translation):

“Given what was shown, we are certain that [the membership] is an investment that will give our country an immediate return. Furthermore, there are already many research projects whose success was only attained because of the efforts of our astronomers and the observation time that was conceded to them, in addition to the perspectives of participation by our companies and institutions on the E-ELT construction. On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that this is, above all, a long-term investment in science, technology and education by our country.”

That wisely said, we are now [arguably] one step away from finally becoming a member of ESO: we need the president Dilma Rousseff to approve the project of law. This is it, people, we are almost there! Even though there is this rough political climate in Brasília, it is highly unlikely that the president will overrule the decisions of the Congress and the Senate. Will she survive long enough as a president until then? Well, that’s another story, but I would bet that she will.

Anyway, this is where things are now. I am very happy, not only because we will continue to be able to use ESO’s facilities for our research, but also because this is a huge and inspiring step for us. Astronomy was judged by many politicians to be frivolous and unimportant given the core issues that our country has. But even so, with the efforts of many people, we are almost there. We have long ways to go when it comes to science, technology and education, but it is also true that we have never seen such good times in Brazil. Baby steps.

Featured image: an excerpt of the Brazilian Senate’s report on the decision taken on May 14, 2015


Woke up a co-owner of ESO’s facilities

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