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The heart of the protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope

Some of the telescopes atop Mauna Kea. Photo: Julie Thurston Photography

The protest this week on Mauna Kea opposing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is, at its heart, about who has a say in how science is done.

Why it matters: The TMT is designed to be larger and more sensitive than any other optical telescope in use today, and it could revolutionize how astronomers conduct their work.

  • Many in the scientific community support its construction.
  • However, protestors consider the plan to build the huge telescope on a Hawaiian mountain — which already is home to more than a dozen telescopes — a further desecration of the sacred place.

The big picture: The protestors, blocking access to the summit of Mauna Kea since construction was expected to begin the week of July 15, say the efforts made to reduce the environmental impact of the TMT aren’t enough.

  • "We are taking a stand not only to protect our mauna and aina, our land, who we have a genealogical connection to," Kaho'okahi Kanuha, one of the leaders of the protests, told CNN on July 22. "We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this, there is not very much we can fight for or protect."

The backdrop: This conflict isn’t a new one. Construction was expected to begin on the TMT in 2015, but protests stopped that work, and the project was thrown into turmoil after Hawaii’s Supreme Court repealed the telescope’s permit.

  • The TMT then received a new permit allowing it to move forward this year.

What they’re saying: An open letter signed by nearly 1,000 scientists says the conflict over the telescope stems from a way of doing science that’s rooted in outdated traditions that don’t respect the rights of the indigenous communities.

“[T]he message is that only people willing to assimilate into science’s cultural traditions are welcome to participate in science’s empirical work.”
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, cosmologist, University of New Hampshire to Axios

What to watch: At the moment, the standoff shows no sign of ending, and national political attention is now directed at the conflict. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are voicing their support for the protestors.