New Poll Finds Majority of Hawaiians Support Construction of Thirty Meter Telescope

May 29, 2020 by Dan McCue
A rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope. (courtesy of TMT)

A majority of Hawaii residents continue to support the construction of a new observatory atop the dormant Maunakea volcano on the Big Island of the archipelago, despite protests that have brought the project to a standstill, a new poll shows.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is part of a new class of “extremely large telescopes,” according to the project’s website.

It is being developed through a collaboration among Caltech, the University of California, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, and the national institutes of Japan, China, and India.

The centerpiece of the planned observatory is a 30-meter (roughly 100-foot) diameter mirror, that is about three times as wide, with nine times more area, than the largest existing visible-light telescope in the world.

Proponents of the telescope maintain it will be able to observe cosmic objects with greater sensitivity, allowing researchers to view the universe in higher resolution and for use across many disciplines within astronomy like the study of exoplanets, stellar physics and cosmology.

But indigenous people on the island argue that because of the massive size of the facility, the project would further desecrate the summit. The mountain has religious significance for native Hawaiians and already houses 12 observatories on the summit.

Since mid-July 2019, protesters have blocked the access road to Maunakea’s summit so that construction material cannot reach the telescope site. The protesters remained there until recently, only retreating due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

The group, known as the kia’i, have posted social media messages warning that they will return as soon as the pandemic subsides.

Hawaii County Mayor Henry Kim recently asked for an extension of a truce that has been in place since December.

Under the agreement, no protesters will be arrested for blocking the site, and the project partners would not try to send construction material up the mountain until the dispute is resolved.

In any event, the pandemic is likely to keep the situation in limbo for the foreseeable future.

The new poll was conducted in March by Ward Research Inc. It shows that 61% of Hawaii residents support moving ahead with construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, with 32% opposed.

Among the other key findings in the poll are:

  • 92%  of Hawaii residents agree there should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture both to exist on Maunakea;
  • 83%  of Hawaii residents agree that the protest on Maunakea is really about issues larger than TMT, such as Hawaiian homelands, overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, and land management;
  • 80%  of Hawaii residents agree that peaceful protests are fine but have no tolerance for protests that result in laws being broken;
  • 79%  of Hawaii residents agree that the government is responsible for providing safe construction access to TMT site;
  • 76%  agree that TMT will help create good paying jobs and economic and educational benefits for those living on Hawaii Island; and,
  • 65%  of Hawaii residents agree that failure to move forward with TMT will lead to the departure of Hawaii’s $167 million astronomy industry.

“Given where we are, it was important for us to understand how Hawaii residents feel about the project,” said Gordon Squires, the chief spokesman for the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

“These results are significant, demonstrating that a majority of the Hawaii community supports TMT moving forward on Maunakea,” he said. “The findings also show that the people of Hawaii see the benefits TMT will bring in terms of Hawaii’s economy and education. They also understand that TMT will likely revolutionize humankind’s understanding of the universe and will help to ensure that Hawaii remains the global leader in astronomy.”

The survey also found that two-thirds of Hawaii residents support the state using law enforcement to provide access to Maunakea and to allow other projects to proceed around the island chain.

Three-fourths of the Hawaii residents surveyed also agreed the government should enforce the law and peacefully arrest protestors that break the law — commenting that many protesters are choosing to get arrested to make a political statement.

The mixed-methodology survey was conducted online and by telephone. The sample included 504 residents, all of them 18-years-old or older. The margin of error is +/- 4.3%.

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