SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL—Brazil’s hope of joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO) came to an apparent end this week, as the 15-nation astronomical research consortium announced the suspension of a 7-year-old deal that would have allowed South America’s largest country to become its first non-European member state.
In December 2010, with the support of Brazil’s then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the ESO Council approved a plan, known as the Accession Agreement, in which the country pledged to pay €270 million over 10 years for full member status. The deal was approved by the Brazilian Congress in May 2015, but by then the country had new leadership. Neither of the nation’s presidents following Lula—Dilma Rousseff or Michel Temer—ratified the agreement and Brazil never made any payments to the consortium. Critics of the agreement, including many politicians and some astronomers in Brazil, thought the original pledge of funding was way above the pay grade of the national science budget, especially as the country’s finances worsened.
In a show of good-faith, ESO had begun treating Brazil as an interim member soon after the ESO Council approved the agreement. That allowed the country’s astronomers to apply for observing time under the same advantages as scientists from member states. But the suspension announcement by ESO on 12 March declared that the completion of the Accession Agreement was “unlikely to happen in the near future.” ESO said it “remains open” to renegotiating an agreement with Brazil.
ESO’s decision leaves Brazilian scientists unable to compete in “first-world astronomy,” says Reinaldo de Carvalho, president of the Brazilian Astronomical Society here. The astronomer at the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research in São José dos Campos this week discussed the breakup with ScienceInsider. His interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How will this departure from ESO affect the development of Brazilian astronomy?
A: We will be strangled, limited by our current facilities. ESO represents the only path for a sustainable, significant growth of Brazilian astronomy, and that’s why we have been insisting with authorities to approve this Accession Agreement since 2010. On top of that, Brazilian industry will be left out of scientific projects that require cutting-edge technology. Science and technology are essential for the development of any modern society.
Q: What changes for Brazilian astronomers?
A: It will be very difficult for us to be principal investigators when requesting observing time in the telescopes. We will have to tag along our European partners for that, like we used to do before the agreement was signed, 7 years ago. It’s like going back in time.
Q: What special benefits did Brazil enjoy within ESO during these 7 years of “interim membership,” and how did Brazilian astronomy benefit from that?
A: We were able to secure observation time in some of the most sophisticated astronomical instruments on the planet, and that resulted in several high-impact publications—some of which are still in the works. It will be very difficult to produce high-impact science from here without access to high-impact data. It’s important to note that, during this 7-year period, Brazilian astronomers were able to secure as much telescope time as their European counterparts, proving that our research community is mature enough to compete internationally. We are also involved in building several new instruments for ESO, and that work will continue, with ESO’s incentive, regardless of our membership status.
Q: How do you feel about how this whole story unfolded? What was missing for Brazil to ratify the agreement in the end? Money? Political Will? More engagement from the scientific community?
A: The financial crisis was clearly a problem, in addition to a lack of political will. This goes to show, once again, the need for a long-term state policy on science and technology, instead of just government policies that change all the time. Former science minister Sérgio Rezende [who signed the agreement with ESO in 2010] and former President Lula were strongly in favor of the Accession Agreement. Then the government changed, and things didn’t go as everybody hoped.
Q: Brazil is a member in other observatories, such as Gemini, the Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope, and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope. To what degree do these other telescopes compensate for the loss of Brazil’s participation in ESO?
A: It’s something, but very far from fulfilling the needs of our research community. We have much more human resources than Gemini and SOAR are able to accommodate, and small participations in a few telescopes will not put us in the frontier of science. We are way past the level of a modest, 4% to 5% share in individual projects. The moment for transformation is now.
Q: What are the priorities for Brazilian astronomy now?
A: The scientists who established research programs that are dependent on data from ESO telescopes will undoubtedly suffer, having to rearrange their programs or look for European collaborators to be principal investigators on their own projects, in order to get the observing time they need. In terms of political priorities, we think we need to keep working to achieve ratification. Maybe this announcement from ESO and society’s reaction to it will help show, once more, to the federal government how it’s imperative that we think clearly, objectively, and strategically about science and technology in Brazil. Without ESO we are fated to produce second-class science, so ratifying this agreement is our top priority.