Can STEM Funding Bridge Gap Between Telescope and Community in Hawaii?

Construction is starting on what will be one of the largest telescopes in the world, sitting on the summit of a dormant volcano in Hawaii. It’s faced opposition from local residents, and one effort to better connect this project with the community involves some major funding for STEM education.  

The Thirty Meter Telescope is one in a wave of massive telescopes being erected in far off corners of the world in coming years. Specifically, the deserts of Chile and the peaks of Hawaii are the settings for this multi-billion-dollar suite of new observatories.  

But not everyone is celebrating, particularly locals in Hawaii who oppose construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the project of an international partnership of researchers. In an effort to better engage with the community, the TMT recently kicked off a STEM education fund that will distribute funds over the next 19 years. 

The telescope is a massive undertaking, costing around $1.3 billion and involving partners from around the world that include multiple universities, and major funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Moore has pledge a total of $250 million to the project so far. Targeted for completion in 2021, construction began in November, following a summer court ruling that cleared the way after opposition from several Native Hawaiian groups. 

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The opposition to the project comes from a few places. For one, Mauna Kea is considered historically sacred ground with archaeological significance. It’s also a delicate, high-altitude ecosystem. Groups in opposition wrote directly to Gordon Moore asking him to stop the project to prevent environmental and cultural damage.

Telescopes built on the island are also an ongoing source of angst among some local Hawaiians, who have a sense that the facilities don’t fully engage with the people or provide high-tech jobs for local staff. Back in the 1960s, the Mauna Kea Science Reserve was established at the summit of the mountain, carving out a chunk of land dedicated to scientific research that is now home to 12 other telescopes. 

Fearing the TMT would exacerbate this dynamic, the board chair of the TMT project Henry Yang started working with locals to improve the telescope’s local connection.  

One result is the THINK Fund (The Hawaii Island New Knowledge), a philanthropic element of the telescope project that supports STEM education in Hawaiian schools. Starting in November, the TMT launched a program to give $1 million every year for the next 19 years to benefit local students pursuing STEM. There’s an emphasis on improving opportunities for STEM education for Native Hawaiian students and a goal of supporting students pursuing science degrees, and then providing those students with local jobs. 

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The fund was formed with the help of a group of community members, and will be administered by two local foundations, the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Pauahi Foundation.