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Ricardo Magnus Osório Galvão: The physicist who would not bend

Almost a year after being dismissed, the former director of INPE continues to warn that deforestation is out of control in the Amazon

Léo Ramos Chaves

On August 2, 2019, physicist Ricardo Galvão completed his last term at the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), in São José dos Campos, in the state of São Paulo. His first sojourn there had passed by quickly and quietly in 1970, when, as a recent graduate in telecommunications engineering, he worked there for just under a year before transferring to the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). His final term, this time as the institute’s director, lasted three years and came to an abrupt end with headlines both in Brazil and internationally. Galvão had publicly defended the accuracy and impartiality of data produced by INPE on deforestation in the Amazon—work that for years has been recognized globally for its scientific quality—against unfounded criticisms made by government ministers and the president himself, Jair Bolsonaro. He was removed on August 2, and subsequently returned to his job at the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (IF-USP).

Almost one year after the incident, like most Brazilians during the COVID-19 epidemic Galvão is in social isolation, which he is spending with his wife at their small ranch in Paraibuna, in the interior of São Paulo. In addition to preparing classes, the physicist is able to dedicate himself to two of his other passions in this rural setting: raising bees and riding his bike. In this interview, conducted online, the researcher speaks about his early career as a scientist, about his specialty, plasma physics (a state of matter similar to a gas in which some particles are ionized), and recalls his controversial exit from INPE.

Age 72
Area of expertise
Plasma physics
University of São Paulo
Bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications engineering from Fluminense Federal University (1969), master’s in electrical engineering at the University of Campinas (1972) and PhD in applied plasma physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1976)
Published works
219 articles in scientific journals and 42 book chapters

On June 9, INPE released the 2019 integrated deforestation rate in the Legal Amazon. It showed that 10,100 square kilometers (km²) of native vegetation had been cleared, the highest annual rate since 2008. Was this scenario already being predicted at the time you left the institute?
Unfortunately, deforestation was already showing signs of being on the rise, and now it’s quite out of control. This increase is very worrying. This year, according to data from DETER [the Real Time Deforestation Detection System], at INPE, which issues deforestation alerts, clearing is taking place during the rainy season in the Amazon, when there’s usually much less deforestation. Normally, the most intense season for clearcutting begins in late May and runs through October. The National Policy on Climate Change, instituted by law in 2009, established that in 2020 deforestation in the country must not go over 4,000 square kilometers. The government will certainly not be in compliance with this law. A recent technical report by INPE shows that from August 2019 through May of this year we had already clearcut 89% of what was removed during the entire previous year in the Amazon. If it continues to run out of control, I’m pretty sure this year’s deforestation rate will exceed 12,000 km². There is also the fire problem, which mainly happens after the clearcutting, when the climate is drier. Then the air pollution becomes terrible, and there’s a huge increase in lung disease. If the height of the COVID-19 pandemic is delayed in the Amazon, the peak of infections from the new coronavirus may coincide with the fires. This situation could lead to the complete failure of the health system in the North.

The data indicate that deforestation is also advancing on conservation areas and indigenous lands.
Deforestation in indigenous territory is largely caused by illegal mining. There are more than 200 unauthorized mining outfits on Yanomami lands alone. There are people entering these areas to clearcut, and spreading the coronavirus to the indigenous people.

At what point last year did you begin to feel any unease on the part of the federal government regarding INPE’s deforestation monitoring in the Amazon?
It’s important that this story is put on record. My time as director of INPE was extremely important to me, including for increasing my own knowledge about other areas of science. The same thing happened when I was in charge of the CBPF [Brazilian Center for Physics Research, a federal institution he directed from 2004 to 2011]. When I arrived at INPE, I knew practically nothing about satellite development, and wasn’t an expert on the issue of climate change. I started to study these areas, which really captivated me. INPE has always developed satellites for important applications, such as for remote sensing and monitoring deforestation. Today, small-satellite technology, up to 100 kilos, has become very cheap. Throughout 2018, I participated in a working group set up by the federal government to overhaul the Brazilian space program. I was very excited about the possibilities, and with INPE’s involvement in this issue. During my tenure—not to my credit, but because of the researchers working in this field—INPE began to structure itself to monitor deforestation in all of Brazil’s biomes, not just in the Amazon. This was a spectacular project, developed by the researchers, and it received about R$70 million from the famous Amazon Fund, which the current administration is so critical of. In fact, even during the 2018 presidential campaign, then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro was already saying that he didn’t believe in climate change and didn’t value maintaining the forests. He even spoke out against IBAMA agents [Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources]. These criticisms really disturbed me.

The Bolsonaro government had no idea what its attack on INPE data would mean in the international context

During the Michel Temer administration I was responsible, together with IBAMA’s then president, Suely Araújo, for improving a technical collaboration agreement between INPE and IBAMA. This cooperation provides IBAMA automatic access to the daily deforestation alerts provided by DETER. The system supplies the geographical coordinates for IBAMA personnel to be able to act on the satellite surveillance. These data are kept confidential for ten days, so as not to warn the illegal loggers that the system has caught them, and to give IBAMA time to prepare its response. There is no such process for INPE to not pass on the data to IBAMA like the administration was claiming. They only way they won’t get the deforestation alert data is if they don’t access DETER. This agreement ended in November 2018 and, with the inauguration of the new administration, I expected there would be an immediate discussion about renewing it. I didn’t discuss the subject with the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovations, Marcos Pontes, but I did bring it up with my immediate superior, who didn’t think it was an important issue. Then, in January last year, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles made the first harsh criticism of DETER. He said the system didn’t have sufficiently accurate data for IBAMA to take action, so they wanted to hire the services of an American company, Planet—which, by the way, is quite good. Salles said several falsehoods about DETER. That bothered me.

How did you react?
The staff of the Earth Observation Department at INPE and I wrote a technical note, which we published on our website. We explained that it isn’t necessary to have resolution down to 3 by 3 meters, as the minister argued, to see if there’s clearcutting. The top of just one tree in the Amazon is 10 to 20 meters across. No one from the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovations [MCTI] was paying any attention to our explanations. I started to get quite worried. Then, Salles held three meetings in Brasília with representatives from the military, people from IBAMA, and Planet. No one from INPE was invited. I was informed by two people from the military who attended the meetings about what was going on. Salles didn’t know what he was talking about. The Amazon occupies about five million square kilometers. To process images with a resolution of 3 by 3 meters, as he wanted, you’d need to have double the computing power of the best supercomputer we have, the Santos Dumont, at the National Laboratory of Scientific Computing [LNCC]. The INPE Earth Observation Coordination published other technical notes that I sent to MCTI, but I never got a response. Some time later, around March, I spoke in Brasília with the head of another MCTI secretariat, a very good scientist, who was not my immediate superior—and whose name I won’t reveal. I managed to arrange a meeting with him. I wanted to propose that the federal government conduct an on-site inspection based on INPE’s deforestation data, as has been done in the past, to prove that our information was correct. I left the meeting quite satisfied.

But after that, the situation deteriorated instead of improving.
A week later I was called to Brasília by MCTI’s executive secretary and my immediate boss. They criticized me for having dealt with the deforestation issue with another secretariat, rather than with them. They said it was up to the administration to say whether deforestation data should be released or not. I argued that they were wrong and that the data would always be available. I said that INPE was a highly respected institution, that I had a name as a scientist and there was no way I was going let that go. I left the meeting in a difficult situation. After that, the attacks started to be aimed more directly at me and the data from INPE. In parallel, I saw that the DETER warnings indicated that deforestation in the Amazon was increasing. I sent a report on the situation to Minister Pontes’s chief of staff, but, once again, I never got an answer. Then in early July, General Augusto Heleno [Chief Minister of the National Security Office] gave an interview to the BBC, saying that the INPE data on deforestation were “manipulated.” An hour and a half later, before I had even read the interview, I began receiving calls from the BBC, colleagues from the European Physics Society, and the Met Office [the British national meteorological service]. Everyone wanted to know what was happening with the INPE data. The administration had no idea what its attack on INPE data would mean in the international context.

You think the Bolsonaro government didn’t realize the negative impact that this criticism would have on the country’s image?
Exactly. Outside Brazil, INPE’s reputation for excellence is well established. Unfortunately, this administration, in particular Minister Salles, has no experience in the scientific community. But I wasn’t expecting that Minister Pontes would have no reaction at all to the attacks. To get access to him, I had to speak with a person above me who always blocked my access. Pontes is military and the relationship with him was very different from what happens in a civil ministry. So I wrote an official letter directly to Minister Pontes, in detail, explaining that this clash between INPE and the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) could not continue, that it would be very damaging to the country. I proposed that he contact Minister Salles and the Minister of Agriculture, Tereza Cristina. I made myself available to go to Brasília personally to discuss all the INPE data. If they wanted, we could develop computational tools to create better access to the data. In my judgment, it was very important to completely defuse the ongoing state of confrontation. I sent the letter to Minister Pontes, to the executive secretary of the MCTI, and to my immediate boss. Once again, no one responded. This is documented in the Electronic Information System, the federal government SEI, which is freely accessible.

I defended the INPE work. I knew I would definitely be fired. But it was a successful strategy.

Where were you on July 19 when President Bolsonaro stated that the INPE data were a lie, and that you must be in the service of some nongovernmental organization (NGO)?
I was serving on a doctoral review committee at Fluminense Federal University [UFF], in Niterói. I only learned about the interview that night when I went to my brother’s house in the same city and read the news. I have to say that I felt physically ill. Luckily I was with my wife and a colleague. At this point, journalists began calling me and the first call I received was from a newspaper in Portugal. On principle, I chose not to answer. I wanted to watch the interview itself. Sometimes what’s written in the newspaper isn’t exactly what was said. But when I saw the interview, I was really shocked. The president not only said that the data was a lie, but that I was probably in the service of an NGO, against the interests of Brazil. It was a very serious attack. To say to a scientist that your data is lying could mean the end of a career. And the data weren’t mine, but from my colleagues at INPE. If a government manager is in doubt about the behavior of a civil servant, their immediate obligation is to open an investigative inquiry. If they don’t, they’re equivocating. If the president had such a doubt, why didn’t he open an investigation against me? He says things without thinking.

You seem to be a calm and thoughtful person. How did you formulate your forceful response to the president’s criticisms?
I thought that Minister Pontes would contact me to discuss the situation. I waited until noon the next day and digested what I’d heard a bit. Since there was no contact from the ministry, I started responding to journalists. A few people even advised me to file a lawsuit against the president, but I understood that the situation wasn’t just a challenge to the INPE data; it was also a violent, intentional attack on science. I believed that I had two options. I could do nothing and write to Minister Pontes to give an explanation to the president. Or I could react. But, if I reacted, the answer had to be scathing enough to have an impact in the media, and, in a certain way protect INPE. I said that the president had adopted a weak, cowardly attitude by making a public accusation about a subject he has no qualifications to evaluate. I think he expected me to resign, but I made it clear that I wasn’t about to do that. I said that his criticisms were the jokes of a 14-year-old boy, not befitting a president of the Republic, and, that I had no such relationship with NGOs. I defended the INPE work. I knew that I would definitely be fired. But it was a successful strategy. INPE received so much media exposure that it was in an almost unassailable position.

What was your reaction when you learned that the journal Nature chose you as one of the ten most outstanding scientists of 2019?
I was in New York in mid-November to attend a conference at Columbia University with Brazilian history specialists. A photographer from Nature contacted me and I thought he wanted to talk about the issue of deforestation in Brazil. When we met, he asked me if I agreed with being nominated as one of the journal’s personalities of the year. He commented that denialism and criticism of science have been taking place in various countries and that my response to these attacks had been the most forceful.

I’d like to talk about the beginning of your career. What led you to study telecommunications engineering?
My father worked as an engineer at various companies. I was born in Itajubá, Minas Gerais, but I never lived there. I lived in Campinas, then later in São Paulo, where I went to school at Caetano de Campos. My family moved to Rio when I was 11 years old. My father went to work at Shell, and then at Petrobras. We lived in Niterói. I wanted to stay in the city and took an entrance exam for engineering at UFF. I liked telecommunications. One of the few good things that the military regime did was to encourage this field. They created Telebras and Embratel. I thought it was a field where there would be no shortage of jobs, although I was already fascinated by physics. The family’s economic situation wasn’t good; I had a brother who was very sick. While I was in college, I taught a university prep course at night.

Personal archive Galvão arrives at the USP Institute of Physics in October last year with his bicycle, one of his passionsPersonal archive

You migrated to physics for your doctorate, after getting a master’s degree in engineering. Why did you change fields?
I had moved over to physics gradually. I was highly influenced by a great German physicist who came to work in Brazil, Bernhard Gross [1905–2002]. By the beginning of my third year in college I was already thinking of leaving engineering and moving on to physics. Gross taught electrical measurements at UFF, but his practicum classes were at the National Institute of Technology, in Rio de Janeiro. I ended up getting along well with him and commented that I was thinking of switching from engineering to physics. He advised me to finish engineering and make the move to physics in graduate school. That’s what I did, although I still did a master’s degree within engineering. My first job was actually at INPE.

When were you hired?
In 1970. I spent one year at INPE. But my master’s advisor, Darhambir Rai, was hired to teach electrical engineering at UNICAMP, a new university, and I followed him. Although I was in electrical engineering, I took several postgraduate courses in physics. In 1972, my master’s thesis, on the polarization of short waves in the ionosphere, was the first in electrical engineering at UNICAMP. After that I went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to do my doctorate, now even closer to physics. In the United States, especially at MIT, several areas of physics are done in other departments. For example, the study of solid-state physics is done mainly in electrical engineering. I studied physics by doing a PhD in nuclear engineering, because I was more interested in nuclear fusion. After my doctorate, which I finished in 1976, I returned to the UNICAMP Electrical Engineering Department. I stayed there for a year and a half and transferred to the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics at the same university.

Why were you interested in nuclear fusion, and specifically plasma physics?
At that time there was a lot of discussion about the importance of nuclear power and the problem of nuclear reactors. Even before the 1973 oil crisis, there was concern about finding new sources of energy. It was already being said that oil would run out someday, and in the future, fossil fuels would be much less available. For all these reasons, the area of nuclear fusion interested me. I stayed at UNICAMP until 1982. Then I went to work with nuclear fusion at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Aerospace Technical Center [CTA], in São José dos Campos. I also began to collaborate, on a part-time basis, with Professor Ivan Nascimento, from IF-USP, building a machine called a tokamak, a magnetic confinement chamber for high-temperature plasma. My vision was very much in line with his, that it wasn’t enough just to do physics in Brazil. It was important that we develop our own equipment. In 1983, I did a qualifying thesis for a professorship at USP. Until 1991 I lived in São José and went back and forth to USP. Then that year I competed for a full professorship, and began to work full time at USP. I kept my residence in São José and set up another apartment in São Paulo. I would stay at the university all week and on the weekends I went back to São José dos Campos.

The nuclear fusion field is not commonly reported on by the media. Although in 1989, there was that spectacular controversy by two University of Utah scientists who claimed to have obtained so-called cold fusion, at room temperature, which has never been reproduced. Do you agree with this impression, that nuclear fusion doesn’t get much press?
To be quite honest, plasma physics is not a frontier area, like high energy physics. We don’t have any fundamental discoveries left to make in this field, since it’s already highly developed. But plasmas are highly complex systems. In physics there are two main branches. What we call reductionism in physics, or Einsteinian physics, is mainly related to high-energy physics. This line of thought searches for fundamental laws that can explain all natural processes, combining different theories. It is a spectacular, stimulating area, which is highly valuable to science. But there is also the physics of complex systems, which includes plasma physics and climate change studies, for example. This physics uses basic, known equations, but its systems are so complex that it’s very difficult to predict how they evolve. One small change in initial conditions can lead to very different results. In the 1960s, there were high hopes that fusion would produce good results and become a viable and safe source for energy production. But it never happened. Physicists in the field always said that it was just another 30 years away. It became something of a joke, and the source of a lot of criticism. But the truth is that developing research on classical nuclear fusion, by using magnetic confinement of plasma at extremely high temperatures, has advanced substantially. Between the beginning of the 1990s and the end of the decade, controlled nuclear fusion was achieved on a machine called the TFTR, at Princeton University, in the United States, and at the European laboratory JET, in the United Kingdom, where I’ve worked. What we still can’t do is produce more energy with the fusion process than we spend to keep the plasma reactors running.

Why hasn’t this barrier been overcome?
In order for fusion reactions to occur and the plasma begin to produce energy, it needs to reach a temperature above 110 million degrees Celsius inside the reactors. When it passes about 2,000 degrees, the matter ionizes and loses a lot of energy through radiation. I use the following analogy to explain this problem: it’s like building a fire with wet or green wood. It will indeed burn, but you have to hit it with so much fire to raise the temperature enough to make the water evaporate that it isn’t worth the effort. In fusion, much more energy is spent than produced. But, for short periods, this limitation has already been overcome in foreign labs.

How short?
Hundreds of milliseconds, really short. But a plasma reactor must operate almost continuously. I’ll go back to my analogy to explain how science thinks about working around this limitation. To avoid losing energy, we have to build an immense fire, using wet wood. So we would need to direct the flame to the center of the fireplace in such a way that the temperature in that region would reach very high levels before the fire goes out. That is why ITER, the largest tokamak-type reactor project—which is under construction in southern France—is going be enormous and will cost around 20 billion euros. [The ITER project aims to demonstrate the economic and scientific feasibility of producing energy using nuclear fusion.] We were invited to participate in ITER when Sergio Rezende was the Minister of Science and Technology, but it was very expensive. Today, the Americans think they can achieve fusion with smaller, cheaper machines, but that hasn’t yet been demonstrated.

What was your biggest contribution to the area of nuclear physics in Brazil?
I think it was building the first tokamak in Latin America with Ivan Nascimento at USP in 1981, called the TBR-1. It worked until 1995. It was very important in training researchers, and we attracted a little international attention with our work. Because our machine was small, we always looked for research niches in which we could produce something that would be interesting to even the most advanced laboratories. The strategy paid off and, in 1984, I won the Manuel Sandoval Vallarta award from the International Institute of Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Italy. Unfortunately, due to the lack of support for large projects, plasma physics has recently been losing qualified researchers to institutions outside Brazil.