A new report that charts priorities for the field of astronomy over the next decade makes the case for the Thirty Meter Telescope to receive funding from the National Science Foundation, saying the “scientific potential of these observatories is transformative.”
However, the researchers also called for better oversight of those projects to make sure they are environmentally sound and the observatories are engaging with Indigenous communities in a meaningful way.
The endorsement of the $2 billion TMT that is slated to be built on Mauna Kea, a volcano on the Big Island considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians, and the GMT in Chile is an important step for observatories seeking federal funds.
“These observatories will create enormous opportunities for scientific progress over the coming decades and well beyond, and they will address nearly every important science question across all three priority science themes,” the report said.
Community Engagement Needed
Mauna Kea was the site of Native Hawaiian-led protests in 2015 and 2019 that, along with court challenges, brought construction of TMT to a halt. The Hawaii Supreme Court in 2018 cleared the way for construction to resume, but ongoing protests and a need for more funding have prevented the project from moving forward.
Protest groups see any new building on Mauna Kea as further desecrating the summit, which is already home to 13 telescopes.
The TMT International Observatory declined to comment on the report’s findings until it had a chance to review its recommendations, which were being published publicly Thursday morning. Media outlets received an embargoed advance copy of the report on Wednesday.
The report is produced every 10 years by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and sets the course for astronomical research for the next decade.
It was written by a steering committee of U.S. researchers who reviewed thousands of proposals for science projects and were advised by panels of experts tasked with looking at specific aspects of astronomy.
“We stand on the threshold of new endeavors and scientific capabilities that could transform our understanding of how galaxies form and how our universe began,” Robert Kennicutt, a professor at the University of Arizona and the steering committee co-chair, said in a press release.
“But our report says serious attention also needs to be paid to investments in the foundations of this research — including in the people who carry it out — and in ensuring that the U.S. community is well-equipped to capitalize on the wealth of information that will keep it on the cutting edge of the worldwide endeavor to understand the cosmos,” he added.
“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,” Simons said.
Projects like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope were among projects that the astronomy survey recommended for funding in previous reports, Simons said.
The U.S. must invest in at least one project to maintain its position as a leader in world astronomy, the report says.
Both the TMT and GMT could receive up to $800 million from the National Science Foundation. The TMT may need to complete another environmental study as well as engage in outreach efforts to qualify for the federal funding, according to the NSF.
“It seems clear that neither project can be successfully completed without an unprecedented level of federal support from NSF,” the report says of the TMT and the GMT.
But the report also lays out potential risks that both projects pose, specifically in regards to financing. There’s a gap between commitments each telescope has on hand with the total cost to build each observatory, the report said.
“Our report says serious attention also needs to be paid to investments in the foundations of this research.” — Professor Robert Kennicutt
TMT is expected to cost more than $2 billion and the GMT about $1 billion. A review by panels of experts that participated in the report gave both projects a “medium-high programmatic risk rating.”
Researchers recommend that the NSF make funding contingent on an external review of the large telescope projects to ensure that they are financially viable, that U.S. researchers would get telescope viewing time that’s comparable to the country’s financial investment in those projects and that data collected by both telescopes be archived publicly.
The report also recommends that the TMT finalize its site selection. While Mauna Kea is the preferred location for the telescope, the observatory is also eyeing a site on La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands.
“TMT has the added risk that the site has not yet been selected, adding cost and schedule uncertainty,” the report says. The report recommends that the NSF complete that external review in 2023.
Recommendations by the survey’s Panel on the State of the Profession and Societal Impacts, which advised the steering committee that wrote the report, also calls for better engagement with local Indigenous communities. The panel, composed of researchers and astronomy professionals from across the U.S., takes a critical look at TMT and management of Mauna Kea in particular.
It said the “lack of an authentic partnership” with Native Hawaiians “impedes the efficacy of the astronomy workforce, significantly risks facilities’ investments, negatively impacts Kanaka Maoli and diminishes public support. It puts into question the integrity upon which scientific discovery is realized.”
The panel’s review of TMT budget documents found that, between 2014 and 2020, building costs totaled $19.3 million. Meanwhile, money put toward engagement efforts like a community benefits package and education and public engagement efforts totaled $13 million.
Pre-construction planning and development cost $211 million, according to the panel’s review.
The panel recommended another initial investment of $10 million more toward community engagement efforts with 10% of the observatory’s operating budget being set aside for those efforts in the future.
The panel calls for better oversight of observatories on indigenous lands, and suggests that any future funding for projects on Mauna Kea be contingent on the state and TMT establishing “a pathway forward using a community-based approach that is based on consent and mutual agreement.”
In social media posts Thursday morning, protest groups reiterated their opposition to TMT and their commitment to stopping construction.
“If large numbers of people are being hurt by a scientific endeavor, they cannot claim it’s good for humanity,” Kealoha Pisciotta, a former telescope operator and a leader in the protest movement, said in an interview.
Pisciotta said the astronomy profession in the next decade should focus on clearing telescopes off Mauna Kea.
“Because science that has lost its humanity is no science at all,” she said.
Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.