The Status of Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean

The development of Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean has stagnated. The number of astronomical papers now is similar to the one from 15 years ago. Here we will describe how this happened, the prospects for the future, and what can be done to grow/maintain Astronomy in the region.

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How did we get here?

To understand why the development of Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean has stagnated, perhaps even reversed, one must first identify the common hurdles present in the region regardless of the diverse and complex socioeconomic systems they live in. Concretely, these obstacles are:

  1. Absence of Ph.D. programs: Graduate students are an integral part of the engine that pushes science forward. Without them, faculty are more isolated and with less available resources to tackle research.  There is currently no Ph.D. program in Astronomy in the region. As a result, there is a "brain fugue" or forced migration for anyone that decides to pursue Astronomy as a career. Furthermore, only one or two universities (on average) offer physics as a major per country, which further limits the future workforce in the field.
  2. Lack of Postdoc opportunities:  Postdocs play not only a crucial role in advancing our knowledge in Astronomy but also reinvigorate their environment with a fresher perspective of the field. Moreover, they often reduce the burden on their supervisors by executing their own research programs and by co-supervising graduate and undergraduate students. Given that there are no Ph.D. programs in Astronomy, it is not a surprise that there is a lack of postdoc positions available in Central America and the Caribbean. Even an established institution in the region, like the "Universidad de Costa Rica" (UCR), only hires six postdoctoral positions per year (for the whole university!).  
  3. Low economic incentives: Central America and the Caribbean generally offer bleak prospects for a professional career inside and outside academia for astronomers. Ph.Ds often decide to continue their careers outside of the region.  Those that decide to come back often do it for personal reasons and their salaries (on average) can be similar to what they were paid as Ph.D. students.  The economies of these developing countries simply benefit the most from immediate technological applications, instead of the more traditional long-term impact of scientific research that fields like astronomy tend to have. Thus, engineering majors are often more difficult to enroll in than science majors. This factor also further limits the future workforce in the field. 
  4. Poor infrastructure: Infrastructure in the region is insufficient (with the key exception of Puerto Rico at least prior to the collapse of the Arecibo Observatory). Astronomers in the region lack computing resources (e.g. high-performance clusters), observational facilities, and/or access to observational data.  Besides, large projects in the field usually require a monetary contribution from the host institutions, these sums are often too large for universities in Central America and the Caribbean. 

A bit more context: More broadly, Central American and the Caribbean experience significant emigration ranging from 3% of the total population in Costa Rica in 2019 to 35% for Jamaica in the same year [1]. This emigration is generally due to violence and insecurity, poverty, family reunification, and natural disasters. Furthermore, Central America and Mexico comprised the majority of asylum claims in the US in the same year.

The main players

Similarly to ref.[2], we have decided to use refereed papers that have been authored by researchers affiliated to institutions in the region as our observable for the status of Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean. We ignore books and proceeding articles. Note that the nationality of the researcher plays no role in our study. Due to the smaller publication rate of the region, compared to [2], it is feasible to track all researchers instead of only the most productive ones.

Before addressing the current status of Astronomy in the region, let us first introduce the most prolific territories in the region. As seen in Figure 1, infrastructure is the kingmaker. It is not surprising that the most prolific territory is Puerto Rico, given that it is home to the Arecibo Observatory, the only facility of this scale present in the region. The percentage of papers from Puerto Rico that are directly linked to the Arecibo Observatory is ~ 72%. This number, albeit representative of the impact of the observatory, is not the whole story. The presence of such infrastructure attracts guest astronomers, and it affects other intangible factors like the motivation to study astronomy through outreach activities. In fact, over 100,000 visitors come yearly to Arecibo and about 30% of them are school children

Figure 1: Total astronomy papers published from 1990 to 2020 in Central America and the Caribbean. We have chosen to illustrate the contribution of the three most prolific countries/territories in the region. Data obtained from NASA ADS.  For a description of the "others" see Figure 2.
Figure 2: Contribution of the countries not explicitly included in Figure 1 to astronomical research in the region during the last three decades.

The status or the rise and fall of Astronomy in the last three decades

Figure 3 shows the evolution of astronomical research in the region. Interestingly, astronomical research peaked after the 2008 financial crisis. One could even argue that the peak lagged behind the crisis due to how budget allocation happens on a yearly basis. Likewise, the drop after 2009 is possibly related to a contraction in the budget allocated to astronomy due to the economic situation. Nevertheless, without available public records that detail the budget of astronomy in the region, we are unable to justify this claim. Furthermore, the figure warns that the current publication rate is similar to the one from fifteen years ago.

Figure 3: Growth of astronomy in the region. Yearly evolution of the production of Astronomy papers in Central America and the Caribbean. The blue line depicts the 3-year moving average.

Prospects for the future

Infrastructure seems to be the most important factor to drive Astronomy in the region since it provides data, attracts astronomers, trains the next generation, and motivates the future ones. Alas, the Arecibo Observatory suffered major damage and its future is uncertain (there are compelling reasons to rebuild a telescope in Arecibo). In Figure 4, we have highlighted the role of the Arecibo Observatory as the primary engine pushing Astronomy forward in the region.

Figure 4: The role of the Arecibo Observatory in the production of research papers in the last three decades. The figure does not include papers that use data from Arecibo but have no author affiliated with the observatory. 

Besides, research in Astronomy in the region is driven by public funds, which primarily come from the budget allocated to higher education that varies significantly, e.g. 0.90% of the GDP for Honduras, 1.58% for Costa Rica, and 2.23% for Cuba in 2015. Using Costa Rica as an example, from that 1.58% roughly 56% is allocated to the UCR, which invests ~12% into research for all areas. It is unlikely that while suffering -- or even recovering -- from COVID-19 more public funds will become available to further develop (or perhaps even maintain to current levels) Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean. 

In addition, tourism contributes significantly to the GDP of the region (e.g., according to the World Tourism Organization, in 2016 tourism corresponded to 5% of the GDP in Costa Rica, in contrast to the 3% for the US. Moreover, tourism in Central America and the Caribbean is dominated by non-domestic tourism. Naturally, tourism has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which will translate into a more susceptible situation for scientific areas not as established in the region, as is the case for Astronomy.

What can be done to help?

The status of Astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean is worrisome; however, small changes might be enough to significantly improve the prospects or to achieve critical astronomer-mass to stimulate growth. Collaboration with partners from outside the region could be key to bolster the ranks of astronomers in the region. Moreover, the natural beauty and warm weather make the region an ideal place to host conferences and workshops. Besides, platforms like ALPHA-CEN, which aims to provide better opportunities for astronomy students, are starting to form. These platforms organize workshops, mentor students, and establish connections between astronomers in the region. Furthermore, higher coordination -- and integration in long-term strategy -- between the region and Latin American partners will be helpful. Finally, short-term entry strategies into large projects in Astronomy could help astronomers in the region get valuable experience, network, and access to the newest and most exciting datasets in the field. Perhaps these short-term options could come with a significant decrease in the cost of entry such that institutions from third-world countries could potentially afford them.

[1] McCauliffe, M., Kitimbo, A., Abel, G., Sawyer, A., and Klatt, J. Migration and migrants:  regional dimensions and developments. In: World Migration Report 2020 (International Organiza-tion for Migration, Geneva, Switzerland), 53--124 (2019).
[2] Sanchez, N. The decline of astronomical research in venezuela. Nature Astronomy, 4, 724-- 726, (2020).

Poster image credit: Carlos Alberto Avila Quesada.

Paulo Montero-Camacho

Postdoctoral researcher and Shuimu Scholar, Tsinghua University

Costa Rican cosmologist interested in how ripples from cosmic reionization affect our understanding of the late universe, i.e. how "memories" from the adolescence stage of our Universe influence the more "adult" Universe that we see roughly billions of years after this stage.

Member of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). 

Also interested in the development of astronomy in Central America and the Caribbean.