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Martine de Mazière, Director General a.i.

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“It is important that we continue to offer our staff favorable and enriching perspectives in the future and that the conditions are created to efficiently attract and use additional people and resources to respond to the scientific challenges.”
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It will not come as a surprise if a retrospective of the years 2019 and 2020 seems overshadowed by the corona pandemic that struck Belgium from mid-February 2020, and which we are still suffering from in 2021. This global crisis has left deep wounds in the lives of some of us, it has shown our vulnerability, but also our resilience and the importance of scientific knowledge in supporting political decisions. The Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy has managed to deal with the crisis by adapting to a more digital and remote working environment, with its advantages and disadvantages. The crisis will influence our way of working and living in the future. I think we have also realised how important it is to meet colleagues at the office, and to be able to talk to each other freely and casually. Going digital and teleworking may be goals for the future, but they must not come at the expense of the social contacts we need as human beings.

On the scientific front, BIRA-IASB has performed wonderfully over the past two years, despite the corona pandemic in 2020. Ongoing space missions and research projects continued, and new initiatives were launched; the Benelux network for the radio detection of meteors, BRAMS, was further renewed and expanded, and a new associated STEM project with a Citizen Science component (MOMSTER) was started. It is mainly the ground experiments abroad that have suffered from the travelling ban, as it prevented us from installing, maintaining or repairing instruments. 

The crisis also brought about a global experiment for the environment and the atmosphere: just as human activities have a footprint on our environment, including the atmosphere, so the variety of lockdown measures in different countries has left its mark on the atmosphere.

BIRA-IASB scientists:

  • investigated the impact of the crisis on the atmosphere and the climate, and
  • were able to observe a temporary reduction in man-made pollutants, as well as a bluer sky due, among other things, to the reduction in air traffic. 

While air traffic decreased significantly, internet traffic increased enormously: how both influence CO2 emissions and other climate variables is a fascinating subject for research.

The scientific contributions to the corona policy, the development of vaccines and the rapid pace of research into the impact of the lockdown measures on our living environment once again demonstrate the importance of fundamental research: it is thanks to continuous investment in fundamental research that an unexpected crisis such as the one we are currently experiencing can quickly count on scientifically substantiated answers. 

Thanks to the continuity and even slight growth in BIRA-IASB's scientific activities, we can fortunately also state that BIRA-IASB's staff numbers have not decreased in the last two years: our external income has guaranteed this. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the structural financing by the federal government is evolving in the opposite direction.

But there are hopeful signs that a new wind is blowing in the policy towards federal scientific institutions, which should allow us to gain autonomy and efficiency in the management of our budgets and investments, as well as our staff, and supports the further development of a digital structure and which pays more attention to climate research and services on an inter-federal level. In any case, we are well armed to face the future with hope, with important scientific challenges in the field of aeronomy, including participation in new satellite missions to Venus, Jupiter, and comets, and the further development of the ESA Earth Watch mission ALTIUS "made in Belgium".

Now that teleconferencing is well established, we will probably move towards a hybrid conference culture, with partly real and partly 'remote' meetings, and a larger share of teleworking in our daily work. But the most important pillar of a fruitful future remains our staff. We currently have motivated and competent people: I would like to thank them explicitly for their continued commitment, even in the difficult circumstances of 2020 and today. It is important that we continue to offer them favourable and enriching perspectives in the future and that the conditions are created to efficiently attract and exploit additional people and resources to respond to the scientific challenges.

Martine De Mazière

Director General a.i.

14 April 2021

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Figure 2 caption (legend)
Satellite observations of NO2 over Belgium for 2019 (left) compared to observations of 2020 (right). The data were averaged over the entire duration of the lockdown in Belgium, from March 18 to May 4.