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Advancing Science: Is TMT the Answer?
Does advancement mean gazing into the past to search for knowledge of our beginnings, or focusing our lenses here in the present to find real sustainable solutions?

About the Author

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) boasts commitment to a new paradigm of development on Mauna Kea through integration of culture, science, sustainability and education. TMT claims to have considered the concerns of the Native Hawaiian community, along with minimizing archaeological and environmental impacts. TMT promises to be a true advancement in the field of astronomy through its ability to gather more light for imaging fainter objects and to focus more sharply than its predecessors. TMT offers a chance to explore as far back as the very first source of light and provides a wide variety of scientific opportunities and clues to the origins of the universe.

However, TMT has been met with strong opposition that spans beyond the Native Hawaiian community. Many TMT supporters offer a generalized range of views, including economic security, supporting STEM education, and scientific advancement, but also statements such as, “Don’t resist change,” and “Scientists want to advance, while Native Hawaiians are stuck in the past.” Many astronomers pose their desire to answer some of life’s fundamental questions and the need to advance science as the only way forward.

As a molecular biologist, I can’t help but wonder if these statements were made with a complete understanding of what science is and what scientific advancement means. Many understand that science is a systematic form of knowledge, but often forget that science is a tool for understanding, and as with any tool can only be useful when appropriately utilized.

Demonstrators sit and rest on the TMT site after praying and singing.  10 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Demonstrators sit and rest on the TMT site recently after praying and singing as part of their protest.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recognizes a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including: chemistry, computer and information science, engineering, geosciences, life sciences, mathematical sciences, physics and astronomy, psychology and social sciences. Though astronomy is a scientific discipline, it does not represent science as a whole.

Many argue that Mauna Kea is the best place for studying astronomy. With skies naturally free of most atmospheric pollution and an island with low light pollution, Mauna Kea may seem like the “mecca” for the discipline of astronomy.

However, Hawaii and Mauna Kea offer the best place to study many other fields of scientific inquiry. With active and dormant volcanoes for geology, and a biological diversity rivaling that of Darwin’s Galapagos, Hawaii offers more than just clear skies and a broad spectrum of scientific opportunity. As a biologist, I recognize that Hawaii is the best place for studying biology. A majority of Earth’s biomes are represented in Hawaiʻi.

Biologically driven fields like ecology and conservation are usually the first subjects to come to mind, but many overlook the scientific value of preserving Hawaii. Mauna Kea represents a biological “piko” that is still not fully understood. With a wide range of invasive threats from vegetation, ungulates, astronomy-related development and military utilization, true management of Mauna Kea needs to be priority to preserve such a scientific marvel.

I am a Native Hawaiian educated in a scientific discipline. I offer a different view as a scientist on what scientific advancement means. True scientific advancement means using science as a tool that can provide a range of benefits through systematic understanding. Science can be best utilized when working in synergy, not just with western values, but with all values.

I am a part of a generation that has inherited many of the shortsighted decisions made by previous generations, often resulting in adverse impacts we see today. These inherited problems require more than simple answers, they demand sustainable solutions. And as scientists we should be proactive in finding non-invasive methods of advancement.

The difference in our perspectives comes down to what our fundamental questions are as scientists. Is it gazing into the past through a telescope aimed deep into space searching for knowledge of our beginnings, or focusing our lenses here in the present to find real sustainable solutions to questions with which we are faced here on Earth?

Hawaiian culture is based on understanding nature and our connection with nature, and with that understanding you can start to translate the word “sacred” that is used by many Native Hawaiians, to a more scientific term, “conservation.”

We must consider our priorities as scientists while maintaining a strong understanding of consequences. TMT describes itself as scientific advancement, specifically through advancement of astronomy, while offering financial benefit to STEM education to offset cultural impacts. This project also describes itself as working in synergy with the people, environment and cultures of Hawaii, yet simultaneously neglects the part of community in opposition and finds ways to justify further development on one of the most fragile and poorly managed environments in Hawaii. As a scientist I cannot see how this project will advance anything beyond astronomy and physics. True advancement of science will come when a true compromise can be met.

The integration of traditional ecological knowledge, obtained through scientific practices observed by the long time stewards of Hawaii, will be the first step in the scientific advancement for the fundamental questions that I have as a scientist. When science shifts away from a closed system that is unwilling to value indigenous knowledge as a form of scientific understanding, we can begin the quest for greater advancements.

Native Hawaiians are the original scientists of these islands, who not only used astronomy to guide them to these lands, but used their observations and understanding of their world to sustainably support a population prior to western contact that’s been estimated to be comparable to today’s population of 1.42 million, which we struggle to support with our current advancements and limited natural resources. Native Hawaiians are and were more than astronomers, but true masters of sustainable practices. Indigenous knowledge offers more than just culture, but sustainable methods to provide more diligent management, a solution the world greatly needs. Rather than sacrificing our tangible for intangible truths, we can look toward the scientific advancement already discovered by the indigenous people.

Hawaiian culture is based on understanding nature and our connection with nature, and with that understanding you can start to translate the word “sacred” that is used by many Native Hawaiians, to a more scientific term, “conservation.” There is a scientific reason for why Native Hawaiians consider places sacred and worth protecting. I encourage other scientists to discover this as we advance science toward sustainable solutions in caring for our land and each other. Aloha ‘āina! Aloha honua!