It's been more than a week since construction was set to begin on the Thirty Meter Telescope observatory. After a years-long legal battle, the controversial project received the go-ahead from Hawaii's Supreme Court last October. Now, renewed protests to stop the construction are garnering the world's attention and raising questions of Indigenous consent in scientific research.
The main issue isn't over the observatory itself, but its location. The $1.4 billion telescope is set to be built on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on Hawaii's Big Island—and one of the most sacred sites to Native Hawaiians. Thousands of protesters, who call themselves protectors, have flocked to the site in the last two weeks. On July 17th, 33 elders were arrested, then let go with citations, after they blocked the road leading up the 13,796-foot mountain.
The demonstrations on Mauna Kea have led to obvious comparisons to the Standing Rock protests to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. But while activists were quick to rally around the Indigenous fight against the oil pipeline, with its potential environmental impact, the fight against the telescope—an international scientific endeavor led by the University of California—has been more divisive. The telescope's supporters have accused the Mauna Kea protectors of being anti-science.
The proposed 18-story telescope would be a boon to the scientific community. It would be three times as wide, and have nine times more area, than any existing visible-light telescope on Earth. It would provide images 12 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope and give astronomers countless opportunities to better understand the universe. But opponents to the construction in Hawaii have pointed out that multiple alternative sites, which the board of directors behind the Thirty Meter Telescope looked at in 2016, were found to be "excellent for carrying out the core science" of the observatory.
"We are not anti-science," Pua Case, one of the Indigenous organizers protecting Mauna Kea said in an interview this week with Democracy Now! "We are against the building of anything 18 stories over our watershed, water aquifers, on our sacred mountain. It could have been anything; it just happens to be a telescope."
Now, hundreds of scientists are chiming in to protest the telescope's proposed location as well. Using the hashtag #ScientistsforMaunaKea, scientists are sharing their scientific field and posting their opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope. "As a PhD student in astronomy I find it abhorrent that we push for knowledge against Indigenous communities and not w/ them. No outreach, no inclusion. It has to stop," tweeted Julia Victoria Seidel, a student at the University of Geneva.
In another show of support, an open letter that has been signed by nearly 1,000 members of the scientific community acknowledges that "there are many senior members of our international community who have devoted their careers to the telescope design and program, and that many junior members have the futures of their careers riding on the telescope's completion." But the letter asks the astronomy community "to recognize the broader historical context of this conflict, and to denounce the criminalization of the protectors on Maunakea."
An Indigenous Hawaiian geneticist, Kealu Fox, along with astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, described the fight over the telescope as a fight against colonial science. They co-wrote in The Nation that "what have not always coexisted are scientific inquiry and fundamental respect for the people who come under science’s microscopes—or inhabit the realms of its telescopes."
The demonstrations on Mauna Kea, blocking road access to the telescope's construction site, are ongoing. Hawaii's governor, David Ige, visited the site Tuesday. So far, no official plans to alter or postpone the construction have been announced.