About half of the Native Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian respondents to a poll released Monday on the Thirty Meter Telescope project oppose moving ahead with construction of the telescope atop Mauna Kea.

One of every three such respondents characterized their opposition as strong. But members of other racial and ethnic groups queried by Ward Research on behalf of the TMT group reflected the opposite point of view: 74 percent of Caucasians, 70 percent of Japanese and 60 percent of Filipinos said they back moving ahead with the project. Forty-four percent of Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian respondents also supported moving forward.

Overall,  62 percent of respondents supported moving forward while 29 percent opposed it, with the remainder not taking a side.

Construction equipment on the TMT work site sits. 9 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Construction equipment on TMT’s Mauna Kea work sits idle, with work still stopped. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The poll had an overall sample of 613 people, with respondents drawn proportionately from Oahu, Maui, Big Island, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai. The margin of error was 4 percent.

A spokesman for the TMT group said it opted to field the survey during the current work stoppage on the mountain to get a sense of where Hawaii residents stand. Construction has  been on hold since last April.

“Obviously, (TMT officials) are pleased with the results. But the plan for the return to Mauna Kea is still being assessed,” said Scott Ishikawa of Becker Communications, which handles media relations for TMT in Hawaii.

For many who have followed the controversy, Monday’s poll results won’t be terribly surprising. The strongest opposition to the project has always been anchored deeply within the Native Hawaiian community, and the new findings show no evidence of that changing.

While TMT may be pleased with the supermajority of Caucasians, Japanese and Filipinos who support moving ahead, those racial and ethnic identities don’t have a strong cultural connection to Mauna Kea and, as groups, haven’t been as significantly involved in the TMT dialogue.

Ishikawa described the poll as TMT’s effort to gauge the public dialogue and “see what we found.”

But some of Ward Research’s poll questions seemed designed in part to gently guide respondents to particular points of view.

For instance, one of its initial questions strains to accentuate the project’s global impact, redundantly describing it as “an international project that will build one of the world’s most advanced astronomical observatories in the world,” but one that was “halted due to protests.”

Later, the survey asks participants to respond to statements such as “TMT will help create good paying jobs and economic benefits for those living on Hawaii Island” and “Failure to move forward with TMT after following all regulations would hurt Hawaii’s reputation as a place to do business.” No statements were included that speak to concerns expressed by Native Hawaiian groups opposing TMT.

“If we had a list of a dozen statements and they were all positive, I’d be more concerned with bias.” — Ward Research President Becky Ward.

“If we had a list of a dozen statements and they were all positive, I’d be more concerned with bias,” said Ward Research President Becky Ward. “But with a short list of only four, I don’t think it builds in a bias.”

Nathaniel Hartmann, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Hawaii, said a well-known bias for agreement exists in all polls and could create an inflated impression of support in a survey such as this.

“But when you ask questions like that and use those sorts of end points to make comparisons across groups, there’s no concern that you’re trying to mislead, from my perspective,” said Hartmann. “You’d expect that people who are for those ideas will say so and those who are against them will say so.”

Ishikawa said TMT acknowledges that the telescope has been a flash point for Native Hawaiians on multiple issues. “What we see in the poll data, though, is that it’s a misconception that all Native Hawaiians are against the project,” he said.

Ishikawa also pointed to changes that have been made to the project over the past decade in response to Native Hawaiian concerns. The original telescope site was scrapped in favor of a new one, farther from the summit, such that at its full height, TMT would only be visible on about 15 percent of Hawaii Island. The observatory’s exterior was also redesigned to help the building blend in with its surroundings.

TMT also will have its own decommissioning plan, Ishikawa said, though details on that aren’t yet available.

Gov. David Ige over the summer called for a more rigorous decommissioning schedule for all of the telescopes on Mauna Kea, some of which are older and of little or no use.  According to the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, 13 telescopes were built atop Mauna Kea between 1968 and 2002. Plans have been announced to decommission and remove three of the oldest telescopes, without replacing them.

Other findings from the poll include:

  • Overall, 88 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “There should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture both to exist on Mauna Kea.” Fifty-eight percent “strongly agreed” with the statement.
  • Despite TMT’s near ubiquity in news media around the state this year, 29 percent of respondents said they hadn’t “heard, read or seen anything in the past few months” having to do with the issue.
  • Most respondents — 54 percent — said they were born and raised in Hawaii, while a additional 32 percent said they had lived here for 10 or more years. Seventy-five percent said they are registered to vote.

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