South American science: Big players

Jun 17, 2014

By Michele CatanzaroGiuliana MirandaLisa Palmer & Aleszu Bajak

It may seem heretical to say so in the land of the beautiful game, but science in Brazil beats the World Cup — at least in a financial match-up. Government and businesses there invest some US$27 billion annually in science, technology and innovation, dwarfing the price tag for the football tournament, which tops out at about $15 billion.

Science in Brazil and many other countries in South America has come a long way since the dark days of the dictatorships just a generation ago. In Argentina, the number of science doctorates jumped nearly tenfold between 2000 and 2010; Peruvian scientists tripled the tally of articles they produced over the same period; and science funding is climbing in most countries.

South American science still has far to go if it hopes to catch up with other continents. By many measures — such as investments, patents and education — the countries there lag behind other nations with similar levels of gross domestic product (GDP). There is looming instability in countries such as Argentina and Brazil, where recent protests reflect deep social and economic divisions — problems that plague much of South America. But amid the concerns, there are many bright spots in the world of science. Here, Nature highlights several examples of outstanding researchers and institutions in the region.

CHILE: Upward trajectory

by Michele Catanzaro

When Mario Hamuy finished his university degree in Chile in 1982, he was the only one in the country interested in pursuing graduate studies in astronomy. Now, more than 25 Chilean students join such programmes each year and Hamuy directs the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics in Santiago, home to 95 students and faculty members.

During the course of Hamuy’s career, Chile has emerged as a major player in the world of international astronomy, in no small part because of the extraordinary collection of telescopes housed in the country’s highlands. “Astrophysics has come to the forefront of Chilean science thanks to the increase in human resources and to the fact that we have the cleanest sky in the world,” says Dante Minniti, an astronomer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago.

Although Chile invested just 0.44% of its GDP in scientific research in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, funding for astrophysics has steadily grown, from $2 million in 2006 to $6.8 million in 2010. Over the same period, the number of faculty positions has almost doubled. And the country’s publications in astronomy have risen more than fourfold during the past decade.

The quality of the work has improved as well. Chile ranks highly in terms of citations per paper in space science, and some of its scientists have made important discoveries. In the early 1990s, Hamuy made a key contribution that helped others to measure the accelerating expansion of the Universe and win a Nobel Prize in 2011. And Minniti is one of the leaders at the VISTA infrared survey telescope at the European Space Organization’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile, which has created a catalogue of more than 84 million stars in the central parts of the Milky Way.

Chile’s skies have been attracting international telescopes since 1964. By 2020, when the European Extremely Large Telescope is due to be completed, the country is expected to host 70% of the global observation surface for large optical and infrared telescopes.

By contract, Chilean astronomers get 10% of the observation time on each telescope installed in the country. But some astronomers say that this is too little, considering how much the country provides for the organizations running the telescopes.

“This country has given enormous advantages to the international consortia, ranging from full tax exemption to diplomatic status: it’s time that Chile participates in a more active way,” says Mónica Rubio, director of the astronomy programme of the Chilean funding agency CONICYT.

A unanimous aspiration of Chilean scientists, says Rubio, is not just to use observatories but also to build them, through local companies and engineers. Another plan Rubio is working on is developing the Atacama Astronomical Park, a 36,347-hectare protected area around the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which CONICYT plans to use to attract future telescopes from Brazil and the United States, and maybe also from China, South Koreaand Thailand.

But many astronomers are worried about the governance of science in Chile. CONICYT has lacked a director since José Miguel Aguilera resigned eight months ago, and the country’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, has frozen plans to create a science ministry (see Nature 507, 412–413; 2014). “It’s a good moment for Chilean astronomy, but keeping the momentum will require more sustained support from the government,” says Minniti.

BRAZIL: São Paulos’s heavy hitter

by Giuliana Miranda

Although Brazil rivals Europe in size, much of the leading research in South America’s largest country emanates from an area the size of the United Kingdom. São Paulo, in southern Brazil, is the richest of the country’s 26 states and publishes more than half of Brazil’s scientific articles. One of the main reasons for its success is the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the state agency that promotes research and education. In 2013, the agency invested $512 million in science funding, more than many nations in the region. (At the federal level, Brazil’s National Council for Scientific and Technological Development has a budget of about $650 million for science, technology, and innovation in 2014.)

 

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