The construction and operation of the ALMA observatory in Chile is contributing to the development of astronomy in the country by granting guaranteed observing time to Chilean astronomers, encouraging the training of specialized human resources, promoting innovations in engineering and software development, helping to improve the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, and supporting the social and economic development of ALMA’s local and regional communities.
ALMA’s relationship with the Chilean community and government has been excellent both at the national and regional levels. Collaboration and communication are constant at the ministerial level (through the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Public Lands, Education and others, as relevant) as well as with regional authorities through the Intendente –the equivalent of a regional governor– and local authorities, through the mayor and town council of San Pedro de Atacama and Toconao indigenous community.
Nationwide, since 2004 ALMA contributes to the development of astronomy in Chile through the ALMA-CONICYT Fund, allocated annually to promote human resources, instrumentation, teaching, outreach and fellowships. As of 2020, ALMA contributes approximately USD 669,000 per year to this fund, and has allocated more than USD 10,400,000 USD until now.
Regionally, ALMA contributes annually to the ALMA Region II Fund, also since 2004. This fund promotes productive and social-economic development in the San Pedro de Atacama community, supporting local initiatives through a public call for proposals. As of 2020, ALMA contributed approximately USD 334,000 to this fund and has allocated around USD 5,100,000 until now.
In the field of science, the observatory has strong ties with Chilean universities. For instance, the Universidad de Chile has played an active role in hardware development and commissioning for band 5, one of the increased capabilities of the observatory approved under the ALMA Development Program. The university has also been a member of the consortium developing a prototype cartridge for band 1, another potential innovation being considered as part of the program. In turn, the Universidad de Concepción has participated in the commissioning of the ALMA Phasing Project, a project funded by the United States’ National Science Foundation (NSF), ALMA’s North American partner.
ALMA brings to Chile a unique opportunity to take the lead in the development of software for astronomical instrumentation and data processing, using the public data produced by the observatory. Several Chilean universities –including the Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica, Universidad Federico Santa María, Universidad de Concepción and Universidad de Santiago– have participated in a project funded by the Chilean government’s “Scientific and Technological Development Fund” (FONDEF for its initials in Spanish), to further develop ALMA data archiving and data mining, as well as the establishment of a Chilean Virtual Observatory. The observatory also has an ongoing collaboration effort with INRIA/CIRIC, a leading innovation center in this field, which recently set up operations in the country. Furthermore, ALMA has lent assistance to a research effort at the Universidad de Chile, to study the effects of high altitude on human health.
Another area in which ALMA has made a contribution is the development of Chile’s telecommunications infrastructure, by triggering the creation of a fiber optic link between San Pedro de Atacama and Calama, which brings into existence a digital highway through which the scientific data produced by the observatory is distributed. This strengths the development of academic networks in Chile, through collaboration agreements with the National University Network (REUNA). Additionally, the new infrastructure encourages telecommunication companies to continuously improve the existing telecommunication infrastructure in cities and towns located near to the observatory.
More broadly, Chile benefits from the creation of jobs at ALMA, where over 80% of the staff is locally hired. Many of the positions require advanced technical and professional qualifications, so valuable training and workplace learning take place at the observatory. In the long run, ALMA is contributing to the positioning of Chile as the undisputed astronomical capital of the world.
Chilean astronomers have access to 10% of the observing time with ALMA. This fosters international collaborations of astronomers, research institutes and universities. Just to give an example, during the first cycles of early science (cycle 3), 43 proposals out of 402 chosen high-priority projects were Chilean.
At the local level, ALMA supports a program to improve education in science and English at the Toconao public school. ALMA has given training, selected and funded teachers to allow these programs to take root. It also delivers teaching material and periodic on-hands feedback on the implementation of the program from specialized education consultants. The program has helped to raise test-scores for Toconao students in national standardized tests, and has been well received by teachers, parents and local authorities. Toconao’s experience is currently being replicated to other schools in the district in collaboration with the Municipality of San Pedro de Atacama and other strategic partners. Around one million dollars have been given – directly or indirectly- to this program during its almost first decade (2009-2017).
If we consider the two aforementioned funds (ALMA-CONICYT and ALMA-Region II) as well as the education improvement program for the Toconao public school and concession payments, ALMA has provided 18 million dollars to Chile since construction of its facilities began.
Education and public outreach activities also benefit the general audiences at the national, regional and local levels. Astronomers regularly interact with the Chilean public, through public talks and visits to the ALMA site. In collaboration with the Museum of San Pedro and local researchers, the observatory has been involved in the preservation of the Atacameño cultural heritage and vision of the Cosmos as captured in an ethno-astronomy project entitled “The Universe of our Elders”. Last but not least, the observatory has built a visitor center in its facilities with free guided tours every weekend from San Pedro de Atacama in order to enhance its outreach initiatives and contribute to the development of scientific awareness of visitors, as well as to the positioning of the area as one of the main tourist attractions of Chile.