How The Debate Over TMT Prompted a Problematic Email

May 15, 2015

An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea.
Credit Thirty Meter Telescope Corp.

The controversial Thirty Meter Telescope has sparked debate in astronomy departments across the country. Apart from the discussion about the protest itself, questions are being raised about diversity within the astronomy community. HPR’s Molly Solomon takes us to one university.

A screenshot of the email from Sandra Faber and Alexei Filippenko that was sent to all UC Berkeley astrophysics students and faculty.

Last month Professor Alexei Filippenko, of the University of California Berkeley, sent out a link to a petition in support of the TMT. It included a note from Professor Sandra Faber at UC Santa Cruz and it landed in the inboxes of all the astrophysics students and faculty. 

Faber wrote in part of the email that “the Thirty-Meter Telescope is in trouble, attacked by a horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on the mountain and who are threatening the safety of TMT personnel.”

"One little email divided an entire undergraduate department," said Phenocia Bauerly, the Director of Native American Student Development at UC Berkeley. She heard about the email through a Native Hawaiian astrophysics student, who was uncomfortable with the wording used to describe the protesters on Mauna Kea. "If that was being said about another group of people who were protesting about something...if it was being said about African Americans or Mexican Americans...I think people would respond way differently and say that was completely inappropriate. I don't think people would sent out an email like that."

Bauerly led a tense campus discussion on the TMT project. Nearly 70 people showed up, including a handful of astronomy faculty. Bauerly says what troubled her most about the email was senior leadership pushing their opinion on the entire department. "This is really going to impact how people think about the telescope," she said. "So sending something like that out is irresponsible because so many people look to Berkeley as a leader."

Hundreds of TMT opponents gathered on the mountain during protests last month.
Credit Molly Solomon

Hundreds of scientists have responded with a statement calling the email unacceptable. The president of the American Astronomical Society called it offensive and disrespectful. Janet Stemwedel is a philosophy professor at San Jose State University. She teaches a course on the ethics of science and says her class has been following the Berkeley email incident closely. "It's actually the basis for one of the four case studies on the final exam," Stemwedel says with a chuckle. "So yeah, my students have been thinking about it."

Stemwedel called the email shortsighted, saying it dismissed and ignored the concerns of TMT opponents. She also worried the statement overgeneralized the complexity of the situation. "What I'm seeing on social media is younger, earlier career astronomers saying this is a problem. And this is a problem our field needs to address."

An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
Credit Thirty Meter Telescope Corp.

One of them is Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a researcher in theoretical cosmology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There have been native students who have been saying privately, I'm not sure science is for me. I'm not sure astronomy is for me," said Prescod-Weinstein. "And I think that's very alienating."

That’s troubling news for John Johnson, an astronomy professor at Harvard University. Johnson, who’s African American, says the debate over the TMT has sparked a broader discussion about the lack of diversity in science. "Mostly young astronomers who are actively engaged in discussions of race and racism right now," said Johnson. "We're really looking to basically tear down the current structure that's in place in academia."

Since the email incident, both Faber and Filippenko have issued apologies. Neither wanted to be interviewed for this story. The issue of diversity in astronomy is complicated and can be found across all disciplines in science. Critics like Johnson, say it’s a problem that will take more than an apology to resolve.