Don’t undermine University of Hawaii, astronomy

This is a turning point for the future of astronomy in Hawaii, and the administration and faculty at the University of Hawaii plainly recognize that.

So do many other people in the islands who rightly fear that passage of House Bill 2024, even as amended by the Senate, would do permanent damage to the astronomy mission through a comprehensive restructuring of how the summit of the mountain is managed.

The message it would send, if enacted: Hawaii is not firmly committed to the pursuit of astronomy from the UH flagship telescope complex on Hawaii island. That’s because it would shift control to a new entity with only token representation of astronomy as a scientific pursuit and an academic discipline.

And that’s why the best outcome would be a simple rejection of HB 2024 by the Senate.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Higher Education voted to pass the measure. It now heads to Ways and Means, the panel that will decide how much money to allot to the bill’s purpose, the establishment of the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority.

This new group would assume oversight responsibility from UH, and would be the “sole authority for the management of state-managed lands on Mauna Kea under its jurisdiction.”

The authority was conceived by a working group the Legislature authorized last year, in an effort to reconcile an emotional divide. The conflict has been building over decades, but it crystallized more recently, over the controversial proposal to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project as the latest state-of-the art facility. A passionate and widespread opposition arose largely from the Native Hawaiian community, which itself is divided on the issue.

The construction timetable for TMT is uncertain, but in any case, this legislation is about more than any single project. Without a vote of confidence for the study of astronomy more broadly at Mauna Kea, the blow to the enterprise would be felt nationally and internationally.

Of course, even in its original form the bill’s preamble acknowledges the summit both for its spiritual, cultural and environmental significance to Native Hawaiians and for astronomy’s “many significant discoveries that contribute to humanity’s study and understanding of the universe.”
“But rather than create a new entity, this strengthening should happen within the UH framework, which combines a growing cultural awareness with the scientific expertise necessary to maintain one of the finest astronomy sites in the planet, for the benefit of Hawaii and the world.” Honolulu Star-Advertiser Editorial Board
Further down in the legal language, though, the allegiance to continuing scientific advances grows dim.
Under the “astronomy development” section, there’s a concerning statement about establishing “a plan to return the mauna above 9,200 feet elevation to its natural state.”

The Senate version tries to soften this by adding the phrase, “at such time that ground-based observatories lose their academic or research value.” Better, perhaps, but it still assumes, without any basis, that space telescopes will drive ground-based telescopes into obsolescence.

This view is far from settled. The counterargument is that land-based telescopes will have crucial advantages for the foreseeable future. Experts making this case point to their size, reliability and upgradability.
What’s damaging is the stated plan to rid the mauna of telescopes, period. This would up-end the state’s longstanding policy of support for astronomy, and at a particularly sensitive time.

Opponents to the bill who testified on Wednesday included Greg Chun, executive director of the Center for Maunakea Stewardship at UH-Hilo. In prepared testimony that also is signed by UH President David Lassner, he pointed to the termination of the current general lease on the land in 2033 as worrying, given the three-year timeline for getting the new entity up and running, and “the lack of a viable business plan” for the change.

Worrying, to be sure.

It’s significant that the Senate draft of the bill would add the UH Board of Regents chair or designee, and a representative from Mauna Kea Observatories to the authority board’s voting members, 11 in all. It also would require an audit after the seventh year, and if that study finds the authority falling short, the management would revert to the UH president and Board of Regents.

Seven years is more than enough time to do serious damage to the mission. Besides: Why did the Senate feel the need to add an escape hatch? That can’t fill anyone with confidence in the stability of the new authority.

Critics of UH management cite the admittedly poor stewardship by UH in the past but, as has been said repeatedly, that is the increasingly distant past. Since then, Chun said, successive audits have tracked progress toward decommissioning inactive telescopes and other management goals.

Should the influence of Native Hawaiian values, and the voices of Native Hawaiian cultural advocates, be strengthened? Absolutely.

But rather than create a new entity, this strengthening should happen within the UH framework, which combines a growing cultural awareness with the scientific expertise necessary to maintain one of the finest astronomy sites in the planet, for the benefit of Hawaii and the world.

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