Large-scale science facilities set to come on stream in Latin America in the years ahead can help scientists in the region take the lead and enhance the impact of their research (image: Pesquisa FAPESP magazine)
Published on 05/13/2021
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – Large research infrastructure facilities have come on stream in the last decade in various Latin American countries, including the world’s largest cosmic ray detection system, the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina, and the High Altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory (HAWC) in Mexico. Sirius, Brazil’s new synchrotron light source, and the Argentinian Neutron Scattering Laboratory (LAHN) are scheduled for completion in the next few years.
Besides these projects, work is in progress to build the Agua Negra Deep Experiment Site (ANDES) in a tunnel under the Agua Negra Pass over the Andes on the Argentina-Chile border, for experiments relating to dark matter, neutrinos, geology and DNA, among others.
This range of new research infrastructure facilities, in conjunction with the existence of a mature scientific community, represents a unique opportunity for Latin America to play a larger role in and even lead large-scale science projects involving international collaboration. Latin American researchers and the science done in the region should therefore be able to move to the forefront in these projects.
To achieve these goals, however, a number of measures will be needed, such as creating common research funding mechanisms and coordinated action to support research in the countries of the region, according to a group of scientists and representatives of Latin American funding agencies who have organized the Latin American Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructure (LASF4RI).
The first meeting of the group, comprising Latin American scientists in leadership positions at major international research institutions, took place on April 30-May 1, 2019, at São Paulo State University’s Theoretical Physics Institute (IFT-UNESP) in São Paulo, Brazil. The meeting was hosted by the ICTP South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR).
The event preceded the Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC), held on May 1-3 in São Paulo. Attended by heads of research funding agencies from around the world, the GRC meeting was organized by FAPESP, Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and the German Research Foundation (DFG).
“This is a good time to work out a strategy that enables the Latin American scientific community to make the most of the opportunities opened up by these new research facilities in the region,” Fernando Quevedo, one of the founders of LASF4RI, told Agência FAPESP. Quevedo is Guatemalan and is currently Director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy.
“Thanks to investment in researcher education and training by Latin American countries in recent decades, the region now has scientists who can lead the implementation and coordination of the large-scale experiments planned for these major science facilities,” Quevedo said.
One of the Forum’s objectives, he added, is to ensure that these new facilities help qualify and train a new generation of Latin American scientists in knowledge areas such as particle physics, astronomy and cosmology.
“I was always dismayed to see that the significant observations using the large telescopes built lately in Chile, for example, were performed mostly by European or American astronomers [responsible for construction of the facilities], with little or no participation by local astronomers. A huge opportunity for local science development was lost as a result,” Quevedo said.
The outlook has changed for the better, he continued, thanks to the fact that most or a large proportion of the funding for the construction of these new research facilities has come from Latin American countries, and the region has a scientific community capable of doing first-rate science. In the case of Sirius, for example, 85% of the financial investment was executed in Brazil by local firms.
“We now have the chance to remedy past errors by integrating the scientific community with government and research funding agencies in the region to establish a roadmap showing what has to be done in the coming decades in terms of education and training, and defining strategic research areas,” Quevedo said.
Another goal of the group is to orient investment in infrastructure in the region so as to avert overlaps in projects and resources. Given that Brazil has Sirius, for example, it does not make sense to plan construction of another synchrotron light source in another Latin American country, Quevedo argued.
“Most of the research facilities we have today in Argentina, for example, are for radio astronomy, geodesy and particle physics. These facilities are also open to collaborative projects with other countries in Latin America and other regions,” said Jorge Tezon, CONICET’s development manager, during the event.
An additional focus for the group will be the definition of priority areas for investment in research in the region. “If the Latin American scientific community decides that climate change and renewable energy are research priorities for the region, it may be deemed appropriate to increase the allocation of funding to these areas, for example.
“Europe has a strategic plan of this type, setting priority research targets for the next five to 20 years. We can do the same thing in Latin America, directing our research efforts as a Latin American scientific community. This can make us stronger.”
A scientific cooperation model that could serve as inspiration for Latin America is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). When this centre was created in the early 1950s after World War Two with the aim of integrating Europe’s scientists in the field and sharing the rising cost of nuclear physics facilities, the science done in Europe was no longer world-class.
Today, research using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has a very high scientific impact and involves scientists from 113 countries, according to Salvatore Mele, a physicist and head of Open Access at CERN. “The convention that created CERN established financial contributions calculated on the basis of national net income in recent years so that each member state pays according to its means,” Mele said.
In the United States, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) has collaborations with scientists in 53 countries including Brazil. “Over the past decades we’ve developed a successful model to support international collaboration on experiments at Fermilab and elsewhere,” said Nigel Lockyer, Director of Fermilab.
Lockyer stressed the participation by Latin American researchers in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), an international science collaboration that seeks to discover new properties of neutrinos, elementary particles with very little mass that travel at near light speed
Physicists Ettore Segreto and Ernesto Kemp, professors at the University of Campinas’s Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute (IFGW-UNICAMP) in São Paulo State, Brazil, developed with FAPESP’s support the new technological concept of the detector that will be used in the experiment.
“They invented, built and successfully tested a new ultrasensitive light-detection technology called Arapuca, which they told me means bird trap,” Lockyer said.