What Has The Thirty Meter Telescope Already Shown Us?

What Has The Thirty Meter Telescope Already Shown Us?

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a 2 billion-dollar behemoth, will not see first light for years (1), but the effort to build it might have already illuminated something important.  It seems nothing for the proposal to locate the TMT on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea has come without controversy and while the state supreme court recently settled the legal issues, the situation on the mountain is now clearly deteriorating (2).

This forthcoming technological marvel will assure continued U.S. national leadership in astronomy research and be a job-creating boon for the local economy (3).  Locating this advanced concept telescope at the premier observing site of Mauna Kea will enable researchers to study fainter and more distant astronomical objects than has been possible previously (3).  However, Mauna Kea is a sacred site to some persons who feel that the construction of observatories has interfered with cultural and religious practices (1).  Unimpressed with the promised gains and unsatisfied by the legal process the elders have drawn their line.  Protestors are now blocking the start of TMT construction activities and forcing other existing installations to cease operations (2).  It is unclear how or when this dispute will end (2). 

Too Far From Home?

Mauna Kea is geographically remote for most of us.  Neither Islanders nor Astronomers, our sense of investment in this quarrel is accordingly limited.  Although this particular situation is unique, the basic story might seem familiar; authoritative official interests align promises and/or economic incentives to generate a broad-based popular consensus supporting an action or decision.  It is making a case by touting indisputable benefits combined with a subtle divide and conquer strategy spiced with a touch of nationalism.  Mauna Kea may be far away, but some similar issues as to where and how we are permitted to decide to best utilize science and technology hit us directly.          

Eat This

Reflecting consumer preferences, suppliers offer a range of food products including organically grown produce, free range chickens and fair trade products.  However, for consumers wishing to actively avoid genetically modified (GM) crops due to concerns about safety or the environmental impacts of the pesticides that must be used with many of them, the story is a little different.  Notwithstanding an often expressed deep reverence for free enterprise and the wisdom of the markets, U.S. government authorities are not making it easy for retail consumers to identify GM crop-based foods (4).  The market will meet a consumer preference to avoid GM food, but the government seems uninterested in facilitating such decisions.

Can We Say No?     

The first babies genetically engineered using the new CRISPR technology were born a few months ago.  This reckless and unethical experiment on unborn human beings was immediately denounced by most colleagues and opinion leaders in the scientific community as “substandard, superficial and absurd” (6).   Now another scientist insists such work cannot be halted and demands he be allowed to perform similar unethical experiments (6).  Hard on the heels of CRISPR DNA editing technology has come a new invention commonly known as a gene drive (7).  The ultimate double-edged sword, gene drives might allow us to control scourges such as malaria.  However, they might also exact terrible ecological tolls in the bargain.  

Scientists have birthed genetic manipulation technologies they are unable to fully control.  The new techniques could bring enormous benefits and the research community is anxious to develop the means to employ them ethically and safely.  Will ordinary citizens get a chance to express their wishes regarding the acceptable uses of genome editing methods before impatient investigators, profit-seeking private corporations or foundations keen to deploy the latest inventions for their own purposes decide matters for everyone?  Will our elected representatives heed the voice of the voters or the vested interests?  

We Are the Instrumentality

Combining tangible reality with spiritual significance Mauna Kea provides a physical focus and sharp clarity other discussions over adopting technology lack.  No hard-to-visualize scientific concepts or imagining the great things to come in the future, the site itself is the heart of this dispute.  In this case the elders have declared the limits and we can both see as well as feel what they are defending.  Perhaps a concrete example will inspire those of us silently watching from afar as events unfold to extrapolate this lesson to other situations.  The Thirty Meter Telescope situation has revealed something important.  It is now up to us to figure out how to make good use of what we have seen.       

  1. Dennis Overbye.  2019.  Hawaii Telescope Project, Long Disputed, Will Begin Construction.  The New York Times, 10 July 2019.  https://nyti.ms/2LOhJde 
  1. Alexandra Witze.  2019.  Hawaii Telescope Protest Shuts Down 13 Observatories on Mauna Kea.  Nature, 18 July 2019.  https://nyti.ms/1OyZy6p 
  1. Anonymous.  Maunakea and TMT.  The Facts About TMT on Maunakea.  http://www.maunakeaandtmt.org/facts-about-tmt/ 
  1. Anonymous.  2018.  U.S.D.A. Announces G.M.O Labeling Standard.  Food Business News, 20 December 2018.    https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/13064-usda-announces-gmo-labeling-standard 
  1. George Dvorsky.  2019.  Substandard, Superficial and Absurd: Experts Slam the Science Behind the CRISPR Baby Experiment.  Gizmodo, 30 April 2019.   https://gizmodo.com/substandard-superficial-and-absurd-experts-slam-the-1834417285  
  1. Jon Cohen.  2019.  Russian Geneticist Answers Challenges to His Plan to Make Gene-Edited Babies.  Science, 13 June 2019. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/06/russian-geneticist-answers-challenges-his-plan-make-gene-edited-babies    
  2. Megan Scudellari.  2019.  Self-Destructing Mosquitoes and Sterilized Rodents: The Promise of Gene Drives.  Nature, 9 July 2019.  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02087-5