Vigils are once again being held to protest the construction of the world’s largest ground-based telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, a place of great cultural and cosmological significance to many kanaka ‘ōiwi (native Hawaiians). At face value, these protests may seem like a clash between science and religion. Proponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) claim it will help astronomers explore the universe’s past in order to uncover its origins, while kiaʻi (guardians) advocating for the protection of sacred places are painted as impediments to scientific progress. This false dichotomy glosses over the fundamental issues at stake: who gets to make the decisions for people, for land, for the future?
To me, this debate is not about science vs. culture: in my practice of science, the two are inextricably linked. I am kanaka ‘ōiwi, and I do science because I am Hawaiian. I research out of aloha ‘āina, a deep familial love for the land. My cultural upbringing allows me to walk in the space between Western science and traditional ways of knowing, a duality that enriches the questions I ask and the techniques I use to answer them. I urge supporters of the telescope's construction to employ a similar duality in order to critically examine the colonial history of astronomy in the Hawaiian Islands in the same way that we are beginning to acknowledge other aspects of science’s dark past.
I envision a future where the practice of science is truly ethical: where human rights, including the rights of indigenous people to self-determination, are upheld through the practice of science. I envision a future where scientists value human relationships in the same way that we value critical thinking and curiosity, because I believe that we are all driven to research by aloha—love for people, the natural world, or human knowledge. At this moment, we have an opportunity to change the way that we do science. To me, Mauna Kea is a battle for our future. We scientists can change the course of this debate. We can shape the future to make it equitable, to instill it with aloha.