Chile: Astronomy Investments Help but Face Some Criticism

By Noah Rosen*

La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert/ European Southern Observatory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Exceptional atmospheric conditions in northern Chile, an image of political stability, favorable tax policies, and diplomatic credentials for researchers have made the country a leader in international astronomy, but some Chileans want to see more benefits from the cooperation. 

  • Experts estimate that, by the end of this decade, over 70 percent of the world’s astronomical viewing capacity will be concentrated in Chile. The United States – including the National Science Foundation (NSF), universities, and private foundations – and Europe and other global players have invested billions of dollars in observatories, creating significant opportunities for Chilean astronomy as well as its high-tech engineering and computing sectors. 
  • Chilean researchers are guaranteed 10 percent of the observation time on all international telescopes established in Chile, a policy Chilean scientists won in the 1990s. According to Wolfgang Gieren, astronomy professor at Chile’s Universidad de Concepción, “the 10 percent has been the most important factor to boost development of astronomy in Chile.” International observatory projects often include significant funding and scholarship activities, including a multi-million-dollar contribution from the NSF to CONICYT, the Chilean science agency, and an annual scientific scholarship managed by the Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo de Chile (ANID). 

The diverse range of support has helped Chile rapidly expand its astronomy capabilities. 

  • Four universities have opened new astronomy departments, bringing the total to eight, and PhD students have increased from five in the early 1990s to 40 by 2005. Joint work and technical exchanges have increased also. The Millimeter Wave Laboratory of the Universidad de Chile works with CalTech to develop advanced millimeter-wave receivers and other high-tech equipment. The Astro-Engineering Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica works with the multinational Gemini Observatory to develop adaptive optics and vibration mitigation instruments, in partnership with Harvard and other U.S. universities. 
  • Chile’s domestic high-tech engineering and computing sectors are benefiting as well. The government estimates that 15 Chilean companies have provided advanced engineering and technology services to the observatories. A local firm, AXYS Technologies, installed fiber optics at an Atacama-area observatory that, experts say, was groundbreaking in understanding how fiber optics operate at high altitude (5,000 meters). A Dutch-Chilean engineering company conducted geological studies and construction consulting for the Rubin Observatory and for another observatory in Cerro Tolar. 
  • The huge data processing and storage capacities required by the observatories is positioning Chile as a big data player. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are developing astro-data projects in Chile. The U.S. NSF is funding a data science summer school at Universidad de La Serena to build connections with the future generation of Chilean data scientists. 

Despite these advantages, Chilean scientists and civil society actors continue to question the relative balance of benefits they get for the globally unique natural attributes in their northern deserts, which make cutting-edge astronomy research possible. 

  • Chilean scientists are demanding more guaranteed observation time, in line with what hosts in Hawaii (15 percent) and Spain (20 percent) receive. They argue that current arrangements still make them too dependent on technologies and expertise from the Global North, which largely controls the research agenda. The Chilean government estimates that only 10-20 percent of the international dollars invested in the observatories enter the Chilean economy, the vast majority of which are channeled to goods and services – construction of roads, buildings, electricity, water and gas supply, hospitality, etc. – rather than building Chile’s scientific capabilities. Chilean scientists and engineers argue for new policies that more systematically involve Chileans in telescope construction and maintenance. 
  • Broader questions of justice also persist: in some places, the observatories consume significant amounts of water and electricity while nearby villages go without regular access. Labor strikes at the Atacama observatory some years back raised questions of fair working conditions, especially given that the favorable diplomatic status accorded to observatories limits oversight. 

Noah Rosen is a PhD candidate in the School of International Service, specializing in grassroots peace movements in Colombia. This article is adapted from CLALS research on U.S. engagement in Chile and Uruguay, supported by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting with funding from the U.S. Department of State. 

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