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

Brazilian Plenary approves ESO membership

It has finally happened, folks! We are almost there: the ESO membership. Okay, so, if you’re still unaware about this, Brazil is set to be the first non-European country to be part of ESO, the European Southern Observatory, one of the biggest and most prestigious astronomical facilities in the world. You can read more details about this here and here. The bottom-line was that the whole process of membership approval (by Brazilian politicians) was stuck, more specifically in the Plenary, an examining board composed of members of the parliament that analyzes and proposes modifications to the projects of law.

Today, 19 of March, 2015, after more than two years dragging along the project in the Plenary, they have finally reached to a consensus, a positive one, even after being compulsively criticized by many members of the parliament. Here is my translation of the declarations stated by the Chamber of Deputies:

“The 270 mi euros are going to be 1 bi reals.” – Nilson Leitão

As I wrote in a previous post, this amount of money is still less than many investments done by the country to private businesses. There is no reason to privilege business over science endeavors, especially for developing countries (as we see in India and China).

“It’s bad for the government, taking money away from people who deserve it and need it. It’s bad for the country” – Pompeo de Mattos

Again, pure demagogy, the same tactic used by Fábio Garcia. This is not money being taken away from people, it is an investment on science, science that will benefit people. Astronomy might not feed the hungry (PhD astronomers struggling to find a position will beg to differ), but it feeds the curious, it inspires the young, it attracts people to STEM – something that Brazil severely lacks. I could go on and on about this issue.

Just as a reminder, the project was target of criticism by both the opposition and the allied base of the federal government, and there is a running joke on the internet that says the Plenary approved the project just because the president Dilma Rousseff didn’t want it to happen – or rather, just to annoy her. Although I find it hard to believe that Rousseff would do take such a position, I don’t doubt that our conservative parliament would take a stance just because it’s against the president’s will. Oh, politics.

But it’s not time for celebration yet. There are still steps to be taken. Now, the project will have to be appreciated by the Senate. It’s hard to estimate the time that they will take to analyze the project, but we can always be hopeful. It probably won’t take another two years, will it? When that happens, then the Congress will finally be able to promulgate the project and Brazil will be the fifteenth member of ESO. Until then, we wait, and we press, and we lobby in favor of science and astronomy.

Featured image: artistic concept of the asteroid Chariklo, for which the discovery of a ring system had participation of a Brazilian team, using telescopes from ESO. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)


Brazilian Plenary approves ESO membership

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


A fierce political blow to Brazilian astronomy

Brazil’s new Sci&Tech Minister: a let down

For some ungodly reason unbeknownst to me, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff decided to announce a bunch of new ministers just one day before holidays, on 23 December. You know, people are busy making preparations for Christmas, not exactly paying much attention to the news. Alas, news seem to be more worried about Christmas than the people are. Couldn’t they have done it in a better timing? Just sayin’. Well, now that I got this rant out of the way, let’s talk real business. The new chairman of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) is Aldo Rebelo, former Minister of Sports.

Aldo Rebelo is a journalist, member of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) and a representative of the state of São Paulo at the Chamber of Deputies. He is also known for taking unscientific, nationalist and protectionist stances during his political career. Let’s number a few of them:

  • In 1994, he proposed a project of law (PL) that would forbid the adoption of manpower saving technological innovations by public agencies (in other worlds, he thought that these innovations would cause unemployment). The project never saw the light of the day.
  • In 1999, he proposed a PL that would abolish the use of foreign words in formal Brazilian Portuguese. As an example, the words “computador” and “mouse” would be “operador” and “rato”. Not surprisingly, the project was never taken seriously.
  • In 2003, another PL, this time aiming to institutionalize the Day of the Saci (a Brazilian folklore figure) on October 31, the day that North-Americans celebrate Halloween. The proposal was archived.
  • In 2006, he proposed a PL that would force the use of 10% mandioca (a kind of potato that only exists in Latin America) flour in the production of wheat flour. The justifications were the “improvement of nutritional value” of the flour and the boost for the production chain of mandioca. This project was also denied.
  • In 2010, in an open letter, he blatantly denied global warming. Why he cited a philosopher/social scientist (Friedrich Engels) instead of a climate scientist beats me. Actually, no, it doesn’t. Here’s a translated excerpt of the letter:

Actually, there is no scientific proof of the global warming projections, and even less that it is occurring because of human action and not because of natural phenomena. It is a formulation based on computer simulations. In fact, by my tradition, I join a scientific line of thinking that prioritizes the doubt over the certainty and doesn’t let the question shut itself over the first answer. Along the extraordinary advances and achievements that Science has bequeathed to the progress of Humanity, there are innumerable errors, frauds and manipulations weaved in service of the interest of countries that finance certain research or projections. […] In contrary of what think the ones that changed more than the world did, the so called international environmentalist movement is nothing more than, in its geopolitical essence, the head of the bridge of imperialism.

  • In 2011, he was accused, by a member of the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), of giving away to the lobbyists of agribusiness and ignoring the scientific community.

On the other hand, Aldo Rebelo has his share of accolades:

  • He is very well seen by other deputies, in fact the best according to 228 deputies.
  • He has intense participation on international relations and national defense affairs.
  • His secretary, Luis M. R. Fernandes, is an actual [political] scientist, and he has experience as member/head of scientific agencies (including being the executive secretary for the MCTI).
  • Some political scientists and analysts see him as a very competent politician.

Now, here is the problem: Aldo Rebelo has the traits of people that we do not want to see as a managers of the political affairs of science; he denies scientific evidence, bases his stances on personal/ideological beliefs and has strong opinions on nationalism, which is terrible given that most science today is done through international cooperation – and on that regard, I wonder what kind of support we astronomers are going to receive in our plea to become a member of the European Southern Observatory. The process was started in 2010 by a decisive act from the former Minister of Sci&Tech Sérgio Rezende, and since then, it has been dragged on through a series of political intermissions. With very little support from the current (and soon to be former) minister Clelio C. Diniz (which is more inclined to science aimed at innovation), along with the World Cup and the elections, the ratification has been delayed for months, and so far there is no prospect of success.

Doing science in Brazil is difficult, especially at institutions that are not located in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Most universities around here seem to be worried about giving more and more lectures and creating more and more undergraduate programs instead of investing in science. We desperately need politicians who understand science and our biggest problems, someone who is willing to fight for what we do. The fact that Aldo Rebelo is a competent politician does not outweigh his worrisome traits and stances in the past. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges as the Minister of STI is going to be financial politics, and we all know that this is the Achille’s heel of science at the moment. Maybe, and just maybe, if he can do a good job on that, there is prospect of redemption, and hope that at least our funding is in good hands. If he does his job, we can do ours – but that is the bare minimum.

After the announcement of the new ministers on 23 December, Dilma Rousseff has seen a lot of criticism on her decisions by political analysts on the internet, even by some people who have endorsed her government. One of her most polemic decisions, besides choosing a climate change denier for the MCTI, is the choice of Cid Gomes for the Ministry of Education: in the past, Gomes voted against the institution of a lower limit on the salaries of teachers on public education – his justification was, and I paraphrase, that teachers “should work for love, and not for money.” Some of the heavy criticism on Rousseff comes from her decisions going completely against what the people [who voted for her] were expecting. But you know, I’m not a politician, much less the president, so maybe there is something to it, maybe she has a strategy; maybe there was no one better than these guys (to be honest, I don’t know); maybe I am nitpicking with these new ministers, and they are actually really good choices. Should we give them the benefit of the doubt? Or rather, do we have a choice now?

Featured image: Esplanada dos Ministérios, at Brasília, the capital of Brazil. Credit: Mateus Hidalgo on Flickr.

Brazil’s new Sci&Tech Minister: a let down

Crazy week afterwords

Featured image: Trajectory of the Rosetta spacecraft between October and December of 2014. Credit: ESA.

Well, my crappy internet is down, and this was a hell of a crazy week, so, while my brother is on the phone trying to figure out why we’re internetless, I guess it is a good time to write about the things that happened on the last days. Let’s start with the astronomy stuff.

It’s all over the news: we landed on a comet. And I don’t think I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about it. Fact is: ESA launched the Rosetta mission 10 years ago (after 10 previous years of planning), and on 12 of November, 2014, Rosetta (some kind of satellite) deployed the small robot Philae on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And this is a big thing, because landing on an object 500 thousand kilometers away from Earth and traveling as fast as firearm bullet is extremely difficult, besides these measurements of position and velocity having uncertainties on them (because we can never be 100% certain). Just think about this: if we were 1% uncertain of the distance, we could have Rosetta pass by the comet up to 5 km away from it. Luckily for us, I would guess the uncertainties are not as high as 1%, and I believe Rosetta is able to make small manouvers. Anyway, I just want to acknowledge the European Space Agency, NASA and every person involved in such a feat (including the European tax payers, because they helped fund this mission). Congratulations!

Also, still on the astronomy notes: New Horizons is waking up next month. This satellite is on its long and cold way to the dwarf planet Pluto, and it will study this [Kuiper belt] object in a level of detail that has never been done before. Just like Rosetta, the spacecraft is, right now, in some kind of sleep mode (I guess just like our computers) in order to save precious power, and will be awaken in order to be ready to probe Pluto and its moons in 2015. Unfortunately, this is not going to be a long-lasting orbiting mission like Cassini on Saturn, because it will quickly escape Pluto system’s gravity and go ever so distant from us. Luckily, the scientists found a good second target to study after New Horizons leaves Pluto, and it’s another Kuiper belt object, but an even more remote one. Again: congratulations to the teams working on NH, it’s another step towards knowing more about our own unexplored cosmic backyard.

Now, moving on to something more on the personal side. During October, I was a bit silent here on the blog. But the truth is that I had two blog posts completely written and revised, ready for publishing, and another text half written. However, I decided not publish them. During October, we had elections here in Brazil, and that is the subject of the two posts I wrote. The reason why I did not publish them is because they were too personal. While this is my personal website, I feel like I should keep the content as free as possible from non-astronomy-and-science related cluttering. Even though politics heavily influence the scientific community, I believe that, on expressing myself publicly, I should just nudge my way through the political stream. This means that I will not openly state my votes (because they’re too personal, and secret by the way), but I might make things clear on subjects that directly affect my interests.

On the same line, let me point out something that made me quite happy: this TED talk. Michael Green, along with other business and foundations leaders, have come up with this new (and seemingly better) way to measure the social welfare of a country, the Social Progress Index. It is based on a series of objective analysis (see their methodology) that branch into many more aspects of social and economic qualities than other indexes, such as the GDP (only income) and HDI (income, life expectancy and education). The cool thing is that, as the study points out, Brazil has come a long way in the last years into becoming the developing country with the highest SPI, which means that, in general, Brazilians have been living in a better social environment than countries like Russia, China and India. Of course, we are not in the same level as USA, New Zealand or Finland, but the path seems promising. In fact, Brazil is seen, among the international community, as an example of effective social policies that aim to fix many urging issues, such as extreme poverty and famine. All this, alongside many other improvements to basic and advanced education are reasons for me to be proud of being part of this amazing country. On the other hand, there are certain aspects that can potentially bother and shame me, such as the Chamber of Deputies delaying the Brazil/ESO ratification on a weekly basis.

And, for the last item, the one that made my week very crazy, is an idea that I have been cooking on my mind ever since I got into studying astronomy, but ended up happening a little bit sooner than I thought: I will get my Master’s degree at the University of São Paulo (USP). After coming back from Netherlands, I and my peers had some conversations that ended up pushing me over the edge, and I decided to make the application for the Master’s before I finish my Physics graduation. The thing is that I am already almost done with it anyway, and since I already have a diploma (on engineering), I might as well just try and make things more efficient for me. Besides, I am completely fed up of traditional college classes. So, last month, I did the admission exam for USP, and the past week, results came in: I passed! There are two next steps: passing on the curriculum analysis, and then getting a scholarship (which will probably be the hardest part). But I’m pumped up. It’s not 100% guaranteed that I will end up starting my Master’s at USP next semester, but I’m fighting for it. I spent the last days filling forms and getting some documents (among them the letters of recommendation – thanks to my supervisors for arranging them) ready in order to make the application, and also just talking to people about the things that need to be addressed (such as choosing a research supervisor and a project). The next results will be out around December 1st, so I will probably write about it as soon as they’re out.

And that was it. Yeah, maybe it doesn’t sound like crazy and exciting week. But it was for me. Also, I got my hands on a little item that will let me take a few steps further into photography, and I might post a review in the coming days. Stay tuned!

Time to capture some meteors and make time-lapses!
Crazy week afterwords