The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: UH Astronomy’s Greg Chun And Doug Simons - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with UH Hilo Center for Maunakea Stewardship Executive Director Greg Chun and Doug Simons, new director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. Both began by explaining what their respective programs are tasked with. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity as well as excerpted in our recent article “New University of Hawaii Astronomy Director Seeks Balance On Mauna Kea.”

Greg Chun: Previously, the various management functions that the university had established over the years, which includes the Office of Maunakea Management, an entity called Maunakea (Observatories) Support Services, and our partnerships within the (UH Hilo Imiloa Astronomy Center), they all existed under different units and different leadership. And while everybody on the ground worked together very well, sometimes there’s just a difference of priorities.

So in November of 2019, the (UH Board of) Regents directed the university administration to reorganize our internal units and they approved that in August of 2020. So what we’ve done is that we’ve brought the Office of Maunakea Management and the Maunakea Support Services group, which is a group that runs all of the facilities up at the mid-level facilities (on Mauna Kea) together. So they’re kind of the field operations under one leadership that reports to me. We’re housed at the University of Hawaii Hilo.

In addition to that, because of the key roles the Institute for Astronomy and Imiloa play in various aspects of our management, Doug and Kaiu Kimura, who’s the director of Imiloa, are also key members of our management team.

Zoom editorial board with Greg Chun and Doug Simons, Sept. 29, 2021.
A screen shot from the Civil Beat editorial board interview with Greg Chun and Doug Simons on Sept. 29. Screenshot

So it’s a consortium, and I have responsibility for the planning and the resource management and the field operations side; the astronomy and relationships with the funders and the other observatories Doug has the lead on. And Imiloa is helping us pull together our education and outreach program.

(Before) the Office of Maunakea Management reported directly to the UH Hilo chancellor. The Maunakea Support Services reported to the Institute for Astronomy. And Imiloa was just kind of out there partnering with us on various things, but had no formal role as a collaborator and a member of our leadership team.

Who’s in charge of this whole thing, (UH President) David Lassner, ultimately?

Chun: Ultimately that would be (UH Hilo) Chancellor (Bonnie) Irwin. The Regents wanted to have a sort of clear accountability as to who was responsible for what.

Doug, tell us about the Institute for Astronomy, of which I understand you have an extensive background. And also the Imiloa and how that works. Is IFA in charge of Imiloa or separate?

Doug Simons: It’s part of the overall astronomy program, but distinct from IFA and the CMS (Center for Maunakea Stewardship). I’m currently in my office in Hilo, which is a little different than the past. All previous IFA directors have been based in Manoa, though I shuttle back and forth daily to Manoa. Greg’s office is down the hall to the left, Kaiu Kimura is about a 5-minute walk from where I am now, and Chancellor Irwin’s just a little bit beyond that.

So for the first time ever, we’ve actually had sort of a consolidation of the leadership roles for UH astronomy on the same campus and literally within walking distance. And I think that’s going to help a lot in coordinating and strategic planning. For me, that’s kind of an exciting evolution in the whole process that’s occurred.

Observatories atop Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The IFA itself is a distributed program across three islands. It’s actually one of the largest university astronomy programs in the world. The programs started about 50 years or so ago and has major facilities at UH Manoa, which is sort of the hub of research and education at the IFA. I was just at the IFA Maui facilities yesterday where the emphasis is on mostly solar astronomy and on a fair amount of technology development. A lot of collaboration with the DKIST (the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope) on Maui, which is the new $400 million (National Science Foundation) solar telescope there. And then, where I am here on Hawaii Island of course, we operate a number of observatories. This is really an operational technology hub for the IFA.

So when I think of it, it’s a distributed program across three islands with specialization. And each of those add up to a really impressive program overall.

There are thirteen telescopes in total currently on Mauna Kea, correct?

Simons: Yes. And two are in a decommissioning phase at this point.

And then on Haleakala, where the solar telescope is going to go, how many scopes over there?

Simons: About 10.

OK, let’s shift to the draft Mauna Kea Master Plan. Where are we on this and why is this is so significant?

Chun: The existing master plan, which was developed in 2000, always had a 20-year shelf life, so it’s time for us to update the plan. In addition, a new master plan is a critical component of an application for a new land authorization or a new master lease. So this is something that we needed to do to prepare for that process as well.

Some of the highlights in this particular plan we have attempted to integrate and have it reflect the input that we’ve received, quite frankly, not just in the last year or two years or five years, but really in the last 20 years.

This plan is really less about building more and more about lessening our footprint and making better use of our sites and facilities that we do have. So it’s a little bit different than a master plan that some people might be more used to. It also incorporates some elements that we’d like to put in place that have to do with managing access, particularly vehicle access, because that is a major impact to the resources or a major impact to the services.

Zoom editorial board with Greg Chun, Sept. 29, 2021.
Greg Chun is taking a lead role on the draft Mauna Kea Master Plan. Screenshot

The other thing I would like to highlight in this plan is that we are committed to getting to nine observatories by the end of 2033 and that would be the footprint, if you will, going forward. We have a process that we’re engaged in right now with the observatories, and having discussions about new agreements and how that might impact their decision as to whether they want to stay around post 2033.

The last thing I want to highlight is that we are proposing in this plan repurposing our midlevel facilities at Halepohaku. So to utilize those facilities to support the broader educational research mission of the university, the facilities right now are more than what the observatories require, which is what they were built for initially. So we’re excited about the opportunity of looking at converting the mid-level facility to what we call a multidisciplinary field station that can support education and research across a number of disciplines, all with a strong foundation in Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian history and the unique cultural lineage, if you will, that characterizes Mauna Kea.

And there’s a public comment period — it started Sept. 12 and runs through Oct. 26. What are you hoping to hear from the public about this plan?

Chun: We’re really excited about this idea of repurposing our facilities for broader educational purposes, we’d like to hear what the public has to say about that. We’re hopeful that our commitment to reduce our physical footprint at the summit will be something that will resonate or be important to people. We do think it reflects the input that we’ve heard, as I said for many years, about reducing our presence and making better use of what we have. So those two elements in particular, I think that’s something that I personally am interested in hearing how the public feels about it.

UH remains committed to having no more than nine telescopes on Mauna Kea by 2033, which is actually when the state lease expires. Is that correct?

Chun: That’s correct.

Tell us briefly about the decommissioning that’s going on. That’s the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and the Hoku Kea teaching telescope?

Chun: So both of those have published their draft (environmental assessments), I think on Sept. 8. They have both started public meetings. The EAs really detail the nuts and bolts of how these facilities would be deconstructed, if you will, and the best management practices that we plan on putting in place to mitigate the impact of that inspection process.

Doug, how does that impact operations at IFA or Imiloa, losing two scopes?

Simons: Primarily in the sense of cost sharing, because there are shared infrastructure costs that have been in place for quite a few years. CSO declared their intent to decommission, I think, all the way back in 2015. So we’ve adapted to that reduced contribution to road maintenance and Maunakea Support Services, etc. But of course as you continue to decommission telescopes, the cost sharing formula becomes more complicated for the remaining facilities to keep up with. So that’s probably the largest impact near term in terms of how it affects the other observatories.

How many nations are up there doing research work? And they include Japan and Canada?

Simons: Over a dozen nations sponsor the Mauna Kea Observatories at this point. Canada, France. National Science Foundation. There are indirect relationships with China right now as an associate partner. The UK still has some money involved as well. South Korea, Argentina, Chile, Brazil. The list goes on.

This new master plan does not impact the Thirty Meter Telescope project because that conservation district use permit actually is there. So whether TMT gets built or not, that site remains still potentially usable if the TMT thing falls through. And I should be clear here. You guys don’t make the decisions on TMT. That would be the Board of Land and Natural Resources?

Chun: Yeah, the BLNR approves the conservation district use permit, so they have met all the legal requirements and obviously they’ve gone to court and everything. So right now, the decision on their future is really with their board, their funders.

I know you’re asked this probably all the time, but it has been a couple of years since the protests shut down the operation. Any sense going forward when we might get an answer ultimately about what’s going to happen with TMT?

Chun: I don’t have a clear sense other than part of their decision-making will depend on the outcome of what’s called Astro2020 or the decadal survey, and that still hasn’t been released yet. So I think that’s going to be key to their decision-making.

What is that?

Simons: So every 10 years, the U.S. astronomy community goes through what’s called a decadal survey that’s sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. And the intent of that is to prioritize major investments at NASA and through the National Science Foundation, ground-based research assets. And this is actually very effective within the federal government because in a sense, the astronomers are making the hard choices and we don’t lobby beyond necessarily these very high profile facilities that are being talked about.

So, for example, I believe in 1980 the Hubble Space Telescope was No. 1 in the ’80 decadal survey. In 1990 the Gemini Observatory was No. 1. In 2000 I believe it was called ATST (the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope) now DKIST (the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope) and in 2010 it was LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope). That’s about two or three years away from being built in Chile.

An artist’s concept of the TMT Primary Mirror. TMT International Observatory

So this has a track record that whatever comes out (that is the) No. 1 ranking gets its funding federally. And that’s why it’s so important for TMT as part of what’s called the U.S Extremely Large Telescope Program to have that ranking after 2020. In astronomy, at least U.S. ground-based astronomy, this is an extremely important process that really drives, on a 10-year basis, billions of dollars in investment for astronomy research.

Part of the master plan, the draft, says that maintaining the Mauna Kea observatory status as a world leader in astronomy is absolutely essential. Without the TMT, how does that affect that status?

Simons: Well, it certainly doesn’t help in the sense that the incredible research capacity of a facility like TMT is enormous. But I’m quick to point out that demonstrably the existing observatories combined have an extremely high science impact in the field of astronomy already. And I could argue it’s actually No. 1. In essence, what’s happened over the past 20, 30 years is most of the ground-based astronomy investment has gone into Chile and Hawaii. And that’s a split north-south across the equator.

We recognize that there are other voices that need to be at the table when it comes to planning decisions about Mauna Kea. — Greg Chun

And long term, the real issue is supporting Mauna Kea astronomy, of which TMT is an important part but not the only path forward necessarily for astronomy. So I’m more focused on the broader picture of sustaining that, given that the loss of Mauna Kea astronomy to the field of astronomy would be gigantic. So I realize the interest in TMT is very important, but I think the bigger picture actually is in the master lease and in sustaining at a minimum what we have now, which is also already extremely powerful for astronomical research.

The concerns of the people who have been protesting the TMT — that Mauna Kea is a sacred temple, concerns that the existing footprint is already damaging to the environment up there, there are endangered species up there — and they would like to see the whole thing gone. I’m very much reducing their arguments, but as you well know, it’s still passionate to them and people have camped out for days on end up there. What would you say to those folks who still to this day are very persistent on trying to prevent TMT from going up?

Chun: I certainly respect their perspective and, as a Native Hawaiian, I agree Mauna Kea is a very, very special place. For me personally it’s sacred, for other Native Hawaiians they would define it more spiritually. I do consider it that way. One of the challenges that we as the university and quite frankly, any entity stepping into our role, will be charged with is a need to balance all of the interests because these are public lands, at least under the current regime. These are public lands.

And so it’s always going to be an issue of how do you balance cultures? It’s spiritual and the argument of sacredness has to be balanced with all of the other values and interests that the community, other parts of the community have attached to Mauna Kea, and that includes recreational, that includes the hunters, that includes people who are seeking a life-changing experience, that includes science and education more broadly, it includes all of those things.

Zoom editorial board with Doug Simons, Sept. 29, 2021.
Doug Simons assumed leadership of the UH Institute for Astronomy on Sept. 1. Pictured in his office in Hilo, he divides his time with the Manoa campus and operations in Upcountry Maui. Screenshot

The situation the university is in is not unique to us, and what we’re trying to do here is find that balance through reducing our footprint. This plan does not limit in any way traditional customary practices. Nothing in here would say that cultural practitioners can’t go up and continue their practice. But as I said, the situation that we’re in I think is not unique to the university. It would be what any holder of that master lease or that land authorization would be challenged to have to do.

Simons: I agree with everything Greg has said, obviously, and I have spoken to this repeatedly at various venues and urge the willingness of everybody to support mutual interests as opposed to only our own particular interests going forward as a way of trying to capture all the possibilities for Mauna Kea. My loftier goals for the resolution of all this is to see the conflict over Mauna Kea not just resolved as a left or right or one extreme polarization winning, because I think if either side wins, everybody loses to some extent. I really do believe that. I see it as an incredible opportunity to hold up as an example of how we in Hawaii have been able to work through these complex issues in a way that melds indigenous ways of knowing and understanding with contemporary science. And this is something that I’m quite passionate about and Imiloa is the nexus of that in so many different ways.

There were protests on Haleakala over the Daniel K. Inouye solar telescope, not nearly as prominent, but they did get some attention. But that’s going to open next year. How did that get resolved but not TMT? What are the lessons learned from the solar scope that can be applied to TMT?

Chun: You know, I don’t know. I’m always hesitant to say this was the solution, but it was certainly a process that allowed people to come together to find a path forward. Federal funding from NSF for that project required what’s called the Section 106 process. And then when federal monies are being used for a project like this there is a process that has to determine what, if any, (are the) impacts on the cultural and historical resources there. That process resulted in a pretty significant benefits package to the community of Maui and to the university as well. So that was certainly a key part of it. But they also, when that process was going on, things hadn’t necessarily heated up to where it is now. So I don’t know that they would have had the same outcome. But I think that was a key piece of them finding a path forward.

Simons: I was going to say pretty much the same thing. If you’re looking for an obvious distinction between TMT where it is now and DKIST where it is now, it was involvement of the federal government and the conversation and ultimately the mitigation that has not been introduced into the TMT situation really at all. I’m not claiming that’s going to quote solve anything, but it’s an obvious difference between the two situations which otherwise have a lot of similarities.

Would TMT ever end up going through that Section 106 process, or are they on a track that’s totally separate now?

Simons: No, they would have to go through that and an associated federal EIS.

There’s actually a separate Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan. Is that folded in as well to this new master plan or does that remain separate from that?

Chun: Yeah, it’s a separate plan and it does get confusing for people. The Comprehensive Management Plan was developed and approved in 2009 and the sub-plans in 2010. What they are intended to do is manage public and commercial access and, generally speaking, human activities. The master plan is intended to address land use, how the university proposes to use the privilege of our assets up there for education, research and public good. So that’s the main difference between the plans.

The real issue is supporting Mauna Kea astronomy, of which TMT is an important part but not the only path forward. — Doug Simons

There is also another difference in that, technically, the master plan is the university’s plan — it is approved by the Board of Regents — whereas the Comprehensive Management Plan is actually approved by the BLNR. And in some ways it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate to think of the CMP or the Comprehensive Management Plan as really the state’s plan for managing Mauna Kea, stewarding Mauna Kea, that the university is responsible for.

OK, and by human activities you mean hunting, gathering, traditional practices? Recreation, not science.

Chun: That’s correct. The observatories have different things that they have to comply with. What the CMP really talks about is resources, preserving resources, including the scientific research I should say. The CMP does have that as an objective, to ensure an environment that does support world-class astronomy.

I want to go on to what the House of Representatives is doing. They have their own working group regarding Mauna Kea, something that House Speaker Scott Saiki proposed. Do you have any comment on that? My understanding is a report is due by the end of this year that the Legislature would take up, presumably in the new session.

Chun: Our window into their conversations is pretty narrow. You do have university officials on the working group, but everyone is being asked to keep kind of a tight lip. We do know that they still are scheduled to issue a report by the end of the year. Most recently, we have had some requests for additional information on different aspects of our management of Mauna Kea. So we’ve been providing as much of that information as we can. We want to be cooperative with that process. But in terms of sort of what they’re working on and what might come out of it, I don’t really have anything to add to that.

Simons: I feel comfortable in representing the Mauna Kea observatories, and in my 35 years of experience I have overall been quite supportive of the land management that the Office of Mauna Kea Management and now CMS has demonstrated, particularly since we now have the Rangers, Mauna Kea Management board, a variety of programs that the university now sponsors. So in general, the Mauna Kea observatories are quite supportive of the management practices that have been demonstrated.

To the sort of more pointed question of the working group, my hope from the outset is that, given the expertise, particularly the Hawaiian cultural expertise, I’m hopeful that that group can come up with creative ideas — whatever the governance is — that can advance a variety of interests on Mauna Kea. It’s going to be incredibly challenging to be able to create a different governance given the time that’s available with the clock ticking down, if you will, on the existing master lease. So nobody should be under any illusions on that. But in any case, I’m hopeful that the report will have really helpful ways of trying to move the ball down the field, shall we say. That can be factored into what the university is doing and other avenues as well.

Greg, anything that we haven’t had a chance to discuss? You have to catch a plane.

Chun: I think in keeping with the spirit of some of what Doug is talking about, people have to understand that, first of all, the university has acknowledged where it needs to improve and that we are committed to making those improvements and those changes. But like everything else, it’s a process. And so it’s not as simple as just sort of flipping a switch and all of a sudden things get better. And I would say that that’s probably true in terms of implementing a new management structure. It’s easier said than done.

One way to think about the university’s role on Mauna Kea is we have actually had to develop the expertise and functionality — we are like the mini DLNR. Not only do we have a regulatory role and a planning role, we have a conservation role. We have a resource management role. We have a cultural role. We have an enforcement role. We have an education and outreach role.

So any entity stepping into our shoes is going to be faced with the same challenge. And that is at the end of the day, for me, the challenge that the working group or any other entity proposing something is going to have to face. You just don’t build that kind of administrative infrastructure and expertise overnight.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has also expressed a lot of concern (about Mauna Kea management). Any comment on what OHA had to say about restructuring?

Chun: It’s kind of limited in what I can actually say, just because there’s an active lawsuit still in place. I will say that we are very interested in bringing OHA in, as well as other stakeholders, in a more formal way into our management structure. And we’ll continue to reach out to them and work on (it) and see if we can find a path forward and make that happen. We recognize that there are other voices that need to be at the table when it comes to planning decisions about Mauna Kea. We’re certainly open to making that happen.

Doug, you’ve helped found A Hua He Inoa. It’s a program of Hawaiian-speaking students as well as educators who work with language experts to come up with Hawaiian names for discoveries. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Simons: Yeah. This is actually Hawaiian kupuna who approached me I think in 2017 with the idea, and it rapidly gained interest. And we formed a hui, which is about half just community members who wanted to kind of create this. It’s now hosted at Imiloa as a program. We have six major discoveries from Hawaii telescopes, including Haleakala and Mauna Kea, and there have been different ways in which the community has been involved to provide those names. And these are by and large names that are officially internationally recognized — they’re not just local, so to speak — by what’s called the International Astronomical Union, the first of which was Oumuamua.

I’m glad you brought that up. That’s the supposed alien spaceship, but maybe not.

Simons: Yeah, I’ve testified, and to the contrary. Sorry to disappoint, but it’s just a rock. It’s just weird where it came from.

Artist's concept of interstellar object1I/2017 U1 ('Oumuamua) as it passed through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. The aspect ratio of up to 10:1 is unlike that of any object seen in our own solar system. Image Credit: European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser.

An artist’s concept of interstellar object1I/2017 U1 — Oumuamua — as it passed through the solar system after its discovery in October 2017. Image Credit: European Southern Observatory / M. Kornmesser.


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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Great  Reporting !Mahalo.Aunty MomiMaunakea Arrested Kupuna

momigreene · 2 weeks ago

It is a mystery why this great CB story and the words of Greg Chun and Doug Simons have so few comments. It seems to be MIA in today's CB, I had to go back and check in History. 

Kahua · 2 weeks ago

The number one question that should be asked of UH is "Given that for fifty years UH has repeatedly failed to protect the mountain by allowing hazardous material spills, raw sewage spills, oil spills that have not been remediated, and bulldozing of sacred areas (all of which are well documented in the state's audit and in NASA documents), and given that UH is the recipient of legally-dubious swaps of telescope time for fair market rent from the observatories, why should UH be allowed to continue as manager for the astronomy complex? Wouldn't Hawaii be better served by an independent group having responsibility for the area?"

JohnDeL · 2 weeks ago

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