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INPE under pressure

Brazil’s most important space research center celebrates its 60th anniversary with a reduced budget, research projects facing uncertain futures, and major challenges ahead

Close-up photograph of the Earth observation satellite Amazonia-1, taken during construction

Léo Ramos Chaves

On August 3, the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) celebrated six decades since its inauguration. Formed at the beginning of the space race—led by the USA and the former Soviet Union—to conduct research and develop technologies and applications related to the space sector, the institute has since established itself as one of the country’s most important scientific institutions. Over the course of its history, it has come to be recognized for its pioneering research in fields such as astrophysics, aeronomy (study of the upper regions of the atmosphere), space climate, meteorology, and climate change. It is also known for its successful satellite and space hardware development program, for having introduced modern weather forecasting to Brazil based on models processed by supercomputers, and for its environmental monitoring with a focus on the Amazon rainforest, conducted with the support of satellite images. It is also notable for its active graduate program, through which it has awarded more than 1,000 doctorates and almost 2,500 master’s degrees.

The anniversary celebrations, however, have been somewhat flattened by concerns about the current and future situation facing the institute, which is based in São José dos Campos in the state of São Paulo and has branches in six other Brazilian states. Under severe budget constraints, continuous staff cuts, criticism from the federal government, which questioned data published by the agency, and its recent organizational restructuring, INPE is facing one of the most fragile moments in its history and will have to overcome some significant obstacles in order to continue with its current projects and establish new scientific and technological ventures.

“INPE is one of the the country’s greatest research institutions, but unfortunately it is going through a very difficult situation with regard to its sustainability. Despite its importance and international recognition, it has lost a lot of support—not just financially—for its activities over the past few years,” says physicist Ricardo Galvão, who directed the agency between 2016 and 2019. “After speaking with colleagues, I sense clear feelings of concern and apprehension about the institute’s future.”

The financial squeeze is one of the most serious problems affecting the agency, according to many of the approximately 20 people interviewed for this report, including civil servants, INPE researchers—among them the current director and three of his predecessors—and specialists from the space sector. The INPE budget comes almost entirely from Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI), the body to which it is linked, and the Brazilian Space Agency (AEB). Science agencies such as FAPESP and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) fund some of the institute’s research projects, but not its infrastructure or salaries. The current budget is one of its smallest in history: R$75.8 million. In real terms, this amount, provided under Brazil’s Annual Budget Law (LOA), represents less than half of what was received in 2020 and about 15% of the 2010 budget. The decline has been gradual (see infographic).

There are several consequences of these budget cuts. One is a delay in determining whether major space projects will be continued, such as the Amazonia Mission’s Earth observation satellites, the first of which was launched into orbit in February, and the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) program, a successful 30-year partnership with China (see article). The financial problems also raise questions over the institute’s ability to fully function. Two important facilities, the Tupã (meaning thunder in Guarani) supercomputer and the Integration and Testing Laboratory (LIT), one of INPE’s 27 labs, may soon only be able to partially operate.

Tupã, the name given to INPE’s Cray XE-6 supercomuter, is used to forecast weather and climate, collect and process meteorological data, monitor fires, and issue weather alerts. It is also essential to much of the institute’s scientific research and development. The data it generates contributes to decision making in important economical sectors, such as agriculture, energy, transport, civil defense, and tourism.

Specialists fear that deactivating Tupã—due to its high energy consumption and the fact that it is reaching the end of its lifespan—will lead to a meteorological data void. The situation is even more concerning given the serious water crisis the country is currently suffering. In June, an open letter signed by environmentalists and the Brazilian Institute for Environmental Protection (PROAM) pleaded for measures be taken to “ensure INPE monitoring continues, especially proper functioning of the CPTEC [Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies], with data produced by the Tupã supercomputer fully processed and monitored.”

The LIT is one of INPE’S most complex structures. The largest laboratory of its kind in Latin America, it comprises a group of installations used to assemble, integrate, and test artificial satellites. The lab is crucial for Brazil to acquire the knowledge needed to develop this space equipment. The LIT is also used to test products already on the market, such as vehicles and electronic devices, generating additional revenue for the institution.

INPE CBERS-4A satellite undergoing electromagnetic compatibility tests in an anechoic chamber at the LITINPE

Clezio Marcos De Nardin, a researcher at INPE since 2004 and director of the agency since 2020, agrees that the institute is facing financial problems, but points out that its challenges are not unique. “Brazil is not in the best economic situation right now. This is a very bad year for all areas of government. The administration as a whole is dealing with limited resources, but there are signs that our budget will be bigger next year.”

De Nardin also explains that Tupã “is old, its parts are wearing out, it has no maintenance contract, and its energy consumption is high.” It will thus be turned off, she says. “It’s an administrative decision to save energy. INPE has another supercomputer, the XC50, which it acquired in 2017. And we have already spent US$720,000 on a Dell HPC [High Performance Computer], which will arrive in the next few weeks, to replace Tupã.” In addition, explains De Nardin, INPE is close to completing the purchase of a new supercomputer, which is more efficient and economical than Tupã. “Nothing will be turned off until we have an equivalent machine.”

Meteorologist Gilvan Sampaio, who heads Earth Sciences department, including the CPTEC, clarifies that the XC50 is already responsible for weather and climate forecasting. “Tupã is used in research and to make long-term climate projections, simulating climate scenarios for the coming years and decades, which is important to many fields, such as agriculture, energy production, transport, and water supply,” he says. “Deactivating it will harm these areas.”

The INPE director says work has stopped temporarily at the LIT due to the lack of satellites currently needing to be tested. “There are no major satellites being built at the moment. There is therefore no justification from an administrative point of view for keeping the LIT fully open. The LIT comprises two labs—one bigger than the other. Keeping the smaller one running is enough at the moment. As a result, we save public money,” says De Nardin.

INPE Image of the Amazon river taken by the Amazonia-1 satelliteINPE

Carlos Moura, AEB president, confirms that INPE’s budget is expected to rise in 2022. “The institute suffered like a factory when it ends a major project. A valley is formed in which investment is much lower than when major projects are being carried out. This is what happened to INPE. It was working on the CBERS-4A and Amazonia-1 satellites, both of which launched recently. These two large funding targets are now closed. As a result, the agency is focused on more day-to-day operations until new major programs emerge,” he says.

Computer scientist Gilberto Câmara, a former INPE researcher and director of the institute between 2005 and 2012, has a different opinion. “I disagree that INPE is in a funding valley. When the new management took over, they should have started the process of continuing the Amazonia-2 and CBERS-5 remote sensing satellite projects. If they had done so, procurement of the Amazonia-2 camera would already have begun.”

Staff losses
The institute’s shrinking workforce has also stoked fears of a collapse. In 1990, INPE had around 2,000 employees; today it has 744, of which 144 work in research and 456 in technological development—the rest work in management. In February last year, the MCTI warned of the gravity of the situation. “The human resources issue at INPE and its impact on the agency’s future is worrying—the number of staff has been decreasing year on year due to retirements,” highlights the ministry’s 2019 Management Report.

“About 200 civil servants at INPE have reached retirement age but continue to work just to keep the institute running. If these people decided to retire, INPE would simply cease to function and we would be in serious trouble,” explains Galvão. Câmara agrees with his colleague. “Continuously losing researchers and other employees really weakens the institute. The biggest problem is the lack of replacements,” he says. “It’s a long-standing problem that affects the institute unequally. The situation is more serious in engineering than in science areas.”

The current leadership recognizes the problem. “It’s nothing new for any of us [INPE’s shrinking workforce]. No previous government has rectified the issue, for one reason or another,” says De Nardin. “In my opinion, we need more staff. Marcos Pontes, Brazil’s minister of science, technology, and innovation, also wants to hire more people. He has asked for a public recruitment process. But the reality—not just at INPE, but nationwide—is not so simple. Many people think there are too many civil servants already. I believe that in science, there are too few.”

In addition to a lack of funding and personnel, INPE was at the center of national and international controversy two years ago when its data on deforestation in the Amazon were questioned by government ministers and by President Jair Bolsonaro himself, who accused the institution of lying about the figures. That year, according to the institute’s data, the forest lost 10,100 square kilometers (km2) of native forest (almost double the area of the Federal District), the highest amount since 2008.

Galvão, who was INPE director at the time, defended the agency, reaffirming that the information was correct and impartial. The clash with the president, however, culminated in Galvão’s resignation in August 2019, a year before his term was due to end.

Three days after he left, Brazilian Air Force officer Darcton Policarpo Damião, who studied a master’s degree in remote sensing at the institute, was announced as interim director. One of his first tasks was to implement an organizational restructuring plan that led to INPE’s eight major areas of research and development (atmospheric and space sciences; weather forecasting and climate studies; engineering and space technology; Earth observation; Earth system science; satellite tracking and control; integration and testing laboratory; associated laboratories) being regrouped into three general departments (Earth sciences; engineering, technology, and space sciences; and infrastructure and applied research).

Léo Ramos Chaves Meteorological operations room at CPTEC in Cachoeira Paulista, São Paulo Léo Ramos Chaves

The need for change was at the time explained as a way of increasing synergy and optimizing human and infrastructure resources to make the agency more efficient. The plan, however, was not welcomed by some employees and was seen by many as an attempt to dismantle the institution. An open letter published by a group of technicians in July last year claimed that “a parallel management structure” was being created at the institute, which “operates, governs, and makes decisions at INPE, but does not exist in administrative regulation.”

“The restructuring process is disrespectful to the institute and is designed to constrain it so that nothing progresses,” says Câmara. “Institutions have a soul. INPE’s areas are organic; they were born from something concrete, based on logic. It is a serious mistake to consolidate these areas into groups with no shared history. Combining satellite engineering with space geophysics, for example, is absurd.”

Employees who spoke to Pesquisa FAPESP and asked to remain anonymous stated that the restructuring plan “created a hierarchy that was harmful to INPE.” According to one of them, the decision to optimize personnel might work, but the new structure is questionable, considering INPE’s history. “And it came from the top down.”

De Nardin counters this criticism. “The restructuring, which I’ve been defending since 2016, has provided clear and factual benefits. It has allowed directors and managers to focus on what’s really important. It was absolutely necessary and was discussed extensively with employees. Some people may not have been too pleased with the result, but that’s natural,” she says.

Promotional material Artistic conception of the BINGO radio telescope, which will be installed in the interior of Paraíba StatePromotional material

Ongoing projects
Despite facing such a difficult and uncertain situation, INPE is still operating. The new organizational structure includes a Small Satellite Division that focuses on creating smaller hardware. “We started studying 10 kilogram (kg), 30 kg, and 100 kg satellite platforms, all with electric propulsion. Assuming the funding is available, the [10 kg] nanosatellite flight model will be ready in two years,” says electronic engineer Antonio Carlos Pereira, head of the division. “They will be used for a wide range of applications, such as Earth observation, data collection, scientific experiments, and technological validation of new components for future missions.”

The engineering and space sciences department is also working on a scientific satellite called EQUARS (Equatorial Atmosphere Research Satellite), designed to obtain atmospheric data in the equatorial region. This information could help explain a phenomenon discovered by INPE researchers in 1976: ionospheric plasma bubbles (see article on page 41). EQUARS is designed to be a 100 kg satellite. “We have made good progress on the scientific instruments that will be mounted on the satellite [ionospheric sensors, GPS receivers, photometers, etc.], which is expected to be ready in three to four years,” says De Nardin.

In the field of astrophysics, INPE is part of an international consortium building a radio telescope to investigate the history of the Universe. Named BINGO, short for Baryon Acoustic Oscillations from Integrated Neutral Gas Observations, the telescope will be used to explore dark energy, which is associated with the expansion of the Universe. Located in the municipality of Aguiar in the state of Paraíba, it will consist of two enormous dishes—about 40 meters in diameter—that will receive radiation from the sky and then reflect its spectrum to metal antenna called horns.

The project is led by the Physics Institute at the University of São Paulo (USP) and involves scientists from China, South Africa, the UK, South Korea, Portugal, and France. “We were invited to participate in the project because of our expertise in radio astronomy instrumentation. We are USP’s main partner and we are in charge of building the equipment,” says physicist Carlos Alexandre Wuensche, head of the Astrophysics Division.

The radio telescope is scheduled to begin partially operating in early 2023. The project has already secured R$14 million in funding, most of which (around R$12 million) is from FAPESP. The remainder will be provided by the MCTI, the Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects (FINEP), the Paraíba state government, and Yangzhou University in China. “There are larger, more powerful, and more sophisticated radio telescopes than BINGO elsewhere in the world, but its design and construction quality means it is capable of taking measurements with the same precision as the very best of those currently operating,” says Wuensche. “It is one of INPE’s most important current projects.”