Science and the messiness of democracy: The Thirty Metre Telescope

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If human beings are to reach the skies and plumb its secrets, there has to be engagement between science and democracy, however cumbrous that may be.

The struggle that the TMT faced in Hawaiian court is akin to the fight that scientific institutions must continue to brave in a protester-driven democracy. | Artist's impression

Industrialists everywhere are envious of industrialists elsewhere else. 'Elsewhere' is imagined as a society where one can set up a steel plant in a week and poison the local drinking water in two. The consequences of regulation on the economy are bemoaned and the constant threat of losing national competitiveness is brandished. This is echoed in all sectors of the national lives of many countries, be it higher education or railways. It is also echoed by scientists, despite aspirations for science to be an international — if not internationalist — endeavour. In 2002, Tony Blair commiserated with the British scientific community:

[Biotech entrepreneurs in Bangalore] said to me bluntly: Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you and you will miss out. They regarded the debate on GM here and elsewhere in Europe as utterly astonishing. They saw us as completely overrun by protesters and pressure groups who used emotion to drive out reason. And they didn't think we had the political will to stand up for proper science.

Indian scientists are themselves far from a happy lot when it comes to facing regulation, with the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in the Theni Hills of Tamil Nadu being a recent sore point. In making the case for the observatory, reference has sometimes been made to the comparable Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The story of the TMT and Mauna Kea is a spectacular saga in its own right and this essay provides a brief outline.

The summit of Mauna Kea, at a lofty 4,207 metres on Hawaii’s Big Island has long been a mecca for astronomers; indeed, 11,000 acres around it have been designated as the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. Data from NASA’s Apollo programme found the arid area a globally leading site for infrared studies and a 2.24-m telescope became operational in 1970. A new approach road opened up the summit and by 2012, the reserve had no less than 13 telescopes funded by 11 countries.

From the building of the very first telescope, the scientific enterprise on the summit faced opposition over environmental and local cultural issues; the latter was largely about sites on the mountain locally held sacred. But with all such Big Science projects as close to a country’s strategic estate as can be while still being run by civilians, this has seldom proven a serious hindrance. Though the site is protected under the U.S. Historical Preservation Act due to its significance to Hawaiian culture, it remains open for development. In the 1960s, at a time when the country had barely begun to acknowledge its almost genocidal history of treatment of indigenous people (let alone made token conciliatory gestures), project planners got away with minor compromises on site selection.


The story of Mauna Kea illustrates that the even the best scientific institutions in the world sometimes lose to the messy democratic process.

The thirty-metre telescope was proposed in the year 2000, when the National Academy of Sciences suggested that one be built within the decade. The reason for the urgency is quite unclear, though later a sort of race did develop with the 39-m European Extremely Large Telescope in northern Chile that was expected to see first light in the 2020s. After initial studies by the University of California and Caltech, the TMT Observatory Corporation was set up in 2003. The Indian Institute of Astrophysics joined later, and India graduated from Associate to Full Membership in December 2014.

By then though, the project was in serious jeopardy. In October 2014, the ground-breaking ceremony was interrupted by protesters. Many were also arrested in March 2015 as they tried to halt construction. There were similar (small) protests in support across the United States. In a peace-building move brokered by the state’s Governor David Ige, construction was halted for a week during the next month. It was unclear why the anti-TMT movement had assumed even a modest scale at this point. Some suggest that the sheer volume of development on the mountain by then was a significant reason; according to an environmental impact assessment telescope structures can be seen by 72% of the island’s residents today.

There were at least two lawsuits against the TMT. In December 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 permit granted to the project by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources was invalid as this was done before protesters could air their side; denying them the most “basic element of procedural due process”. It called the permit a “cart before the horse”.


This move led the project to be seemingly shelved with other countries such as India lobbying for their own sites (in Ladakh). On July 26, 2017, however, Hawaii was back in the running. A judge recommended that the competent authority reissue the permit as state law allowed astronomy in the area without specifying any limits.

The issue in Hawaii was a very local and temporary one; the force of the protests had taken the scientific community by surprise. Yet there was little local, national or international interest in the July judgment. While what happens next is unclear, the Mauna Kea saga offers insights for planners of Big Science projects such as the INO.

Last heard, the National Green Tribunal had stripped the INO project of its environmental clearance, as it was within 5 km of the Idukki National Park in Kerala (a figure closely contested by the INO) and less than a km (the limit is five) from the Tamil Nadu Kerala border. This meant that it was a category A project which required a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment rather than a category B project under which it had previously obtained clearance.

While it is likely that the previous submission was a result of human error, such error illustrates not merely incompetence but a disregard (by scientists no less than industrialists) in engaging with the regulatory process. This clear disdain for engagement even with a techno-scientific process designed by scientists is worrying. Indian scientist-bureaucrats may take heart in the fact that almighty NASA too has fallen prey to this; in 2002, an American court blocked a NASA Mauna Kea project as it had failed to do an appropriate environmental analysis.

Like the TMT, the INO issue is likely to be resolved through legal process and it is unlikely that the project will be shelved. The story of Mauna Kea is however recalled to illustrate that the even the best scientific institutions in the world engage with (and sometimes lose to) the democratic process, however messy and irrational that might seem. It is hoped that the best minds of Indian science continue to engage actively, responsibly and patiently with the public as well as with regulatory processes.

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