Many people I’ve talked to who support building the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii believe it will bring prestige to the University and to the state. There’s this idea that having the most sophisticated telescope in the world at our university will offer an unparalleled sense of pride for the entire state.

However, as the world watches peaceful protesters, many of whom are esteemed elders, being arrested; as the world watches other protesters weeping and chanting at the Mauna; as the world watches trauma being inflicted upon land protectors and the Hawaiian people, this will not be a source of pride for the state of Hawaii. If the TMT is built at Mauna Kea, I assure you, this will be a source of shame for UH leadership, state officials and the entire state of Hawaii.

This past March, I co-hosted a talk story panel about Mauna Kea and TMT at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The speakers were Greg Chun, UH president senior advisor; Candace Fujikane, professor of English; Roy Gal, associate specialist in astronomy; Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, professor of political science; and Robert McLaren, interim director of the Institute for Astronomy.

The goal was to educate the student body about the issues of TMT and Mauna Kea. One of the most memorable parts of the panel for me was when the panelists discussed the issue of research and ethics; Professor Goodyear-Kaopua said that researchers in astronomy should be held to the same standards as researchers in the social sciences.

Faculty at all U.S. universities must have their research plans approved by the Institutional Review Board. The IRB ensures that university researchers conduct ethical studies. Other countries have their own version of the IRB. IRB approval is required for all research projects and there’s an additional process for projects involving living humans.

Supporters form a large circle near the Maunakea Access Road, singing and listening to Kupuna share stories.
Protesters of the Thirty Meter telescope form a large circle near the Mauna Kea Access Road, singing and listening to kupuna share stories. Because project has an impact on living people, it needs to be reviewed by a UH board. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The IRB is highly concerned if research projects will harm living people. This means that faculty in astronomy could (and likely have) received ethical approval for the TMT telescope, without any consideration for how the project or subsequent research projects will impact living people.

In contrast, as a sociologist and a researcher at UH Manoa, if I wanted to interview members of the community about the construction of the TMT at Mauna Kea, the IRB would raise serious ethical concerns. It could take a few years for the project to receive approval, if ever.

It’s Not Binary

Often the issue of building the TMT on Mauna Kea gets reduced to a binary: sciences versus culture. However, protecting the land to preserve Hawaiian culture and building the TMT to enhance the field of astronomy is not a binary, the two could coexist.

As such, I believe the TMT project should be evaluated for its impact on the people as well as the environment and have to go through the same IRB review process as projects in the social sciences. After all, the project directly impacts living people. We can already see its impact by looking at the pictures and video coverage of kupuna being arrested on Mauna Kea, of the land protectors weeping and chanting as their elders are taken away.

I call upon UH Manoa leadership as well as state officials to halt TMT construction until the project has been fully reviewed by the Institutional Review Board for the project’s impact on living people.

I’m confident that serious ethical issues will arise; so much so that the project will need to move to another location. Other viable sites have been identified for the telescope but there is no other more sacred place to the Hawaiian people than Mauna Kea, the birth of creation.

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