How do we balance scientific and cultural concerns?

What’s happening? Native Hawaiian communities have managed to halt building work for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the volcano Mauna Kea, citing damage to the sacred site by previous projects, as several existing telescopes have yet to be decommissioned or removed. The company behind the TMT has been awaiting the findings of a report set to help clarify the astronomers’ priorities. (Axios)

Zooming in on the issue – Proposals for construction of the TMT have existed since 2015 and, despite obtaining building permission in 2019, project managers are waiting until they can improve their plans through consultation with Native Hawaiian community representatives. Researchers have picked the near 14,000 ft tall dormant volcano as a prime location for astronomers to conduct research about space and the universe.

A contentious point – While increased scientific study of our world and beyond are undoubtedly important pursuits, the dialogue around the relationship between scientific exploration and the cultural heritage of Indigenous groups suffers from misrepresentative framing. Supporters of the TMT have suggested that these protests from Native Hawaiians are caused by a poor understanding and appreciation of the science behind the telescope. Quite bluntly, this is a patronising perspective that fails to acknowledge the value of Indigenous scientific knowledge and the rights native populations have to their own land.

This land is your land, this land is my land… Beyond the bleak history of Indigenous people across the world being marginalised, denied their land rights and facing the blatant destruction of their heritage sites, the framing of these conflicts as “science vs. culture” ignores valuable Native Hawaiian cultural knowledge directly pertaining to cosmology and climate change that has been recorded through generations, but dismissed by Western science disciplines as “stories, anecdotes, not science” and legend.

For example, hundreds of years of detailed climate data is present in pre-colonial Hawaiian newspaper weather reports, which have only recently been studied as part of mainstream climate science. This effect is exacerbated by poor representation of ethnic and cultural diversity in STEM research and education – which can be traced back in part to a history of exploitation in science among people of colour.

As Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa has said on the issue: “It’s science that informs our understanding of the sacredness of this mountain. It’s science that gives us the concern that the damage that could be done to this island could have ramifications for the whole ecosystem on the island of Hawaii”.

How do we fix this? As concerning as the narrative surrounding the TMT is, the project leaders seem to be taking important steps to listen to native communities’ perspectives and prioritise cultural sustainability before subsequently taking material action that can never be reversed.

Incidents in recent years that have seen retrospective action taken to compensate Indigenous groups – such as ANZ retrospectively compensating communities that they exploited in the past, or Rio Tinto issuing apologies after irreparable damage has been done to heritage sites – just won’t cut it anymore.

More broadly, assessment of the social impacts of business, infrastructure or research projects should become as important as environmental impacts and should be regulated accordingly. This year Massachusetts launched a bill which will require any construction to fully evaluate environmental effects alongside the direct and indirect social impacts the projects may have on residents nearby.

For longer term improvements in how minority and Indigenous culture and knowledge is represented in industry and in STEM research, there needs to be greater investment in education equality – Cisco and Bloomberg are two firms that have recently done exactly that.

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