Personal Opinions Crystallize as Hawaiʻi Enters Week Three of TMT Standoff

Jul 29, 2019

Compromise may seem like a long shot for those on all sides of the Thirty-Meter Telescope debate. Media reports, polling data, and statewide demonstrations can simplify a complex topic that continues to divide island communities. But there are folks who have changed their minds over time. Here are their stories.

Astrophysicist Thayne Currie initially opposed the Thirty-Meter Telescope when he first began working on Mauna Kea’s Subaru Telescope five years ago.

“I did it because I did not have a proper understanding of what the telescope was all about,” Currie said. “I didn’t have a proper understanding of its size, location, and how it’s giving back to the community.”

TMT has been courting Mauna Kea for more than a decade, and has invested more than $5 million into STEM education on the Big Island. The $1.4 billion telescope would have a footprint of nearly 1.5 acres and stand at a height of about 18 stories. But it was the judicial process that ultimately convinced him.

“After the Supreme Court invalidated the first permit and we had to redo the process, I feel the process was a lot more transparent,” said Currie. “And I believe the outcome of that legal process was probably a better compromise than the first time around.”

Currie has since become one of the project’s most vocal supporters, even starting a group called Yes2TMT.

Native Hawaiian scientist Aurora Kagawa-Viviani was originally indifferent to TMT being built. Mauna Kea is one of the best places on Earth for astronomy and she values new technology and the potential for discovery. But she wasn’t entirely sure those calling themselves kiaʻi, or protectors of the mountain, most of whom are native Hawaiian, would be taken seriously.

“We could say 'no' and it wouldn’t matter,” says Kagawa-Viviani.

She said the 2015 protests that initially halted TMT construction caught her by surprise.   

“Something I assumed was inevitable – the construction of a massive telescope, something I thought was inevitable – might not necessarily be inevitable,” said Kagawa-Viviani. “With that for me came hope that we as native Hawaiians would have a seat at the table.”

She said she began to reflect on her own ethical principles of scientific research as well as her role as a native Hawaiian scientist. Kagawa-Viviani has since helped organize University of Hawai'i graduate students in the sciences, including astronomy, who believe their disciplines can be more just and equitable.

According to a 2018 poll by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, nearly 77 percent of Hawaiʻi voters support TMT. A majority of the 800 respondents identifying as native Hawaiian also approved the project. According to Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, the firm that conducted the phone survey, 78 native Hawaiians respondents were polled with 72 percent in support of TMT.

There’s no telling whether the past two weeks of protests have had any impact on public opinion. Gov. David Ige is soliciting feedback in an effort to find out.