This is an update of the controversy over the presence of observatories on top of Mauna Kea. Yesterday, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents unanimously approved the plans for the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) - one of the largest planned telescopes for the next decade (it is expected to be operational by 2018). Some of the Native Hawaiian and environmentalist groups are unhappy about it and still plan to challenge the approval in the courts. The TMT now will now apply for a permit from the state, however, it is looking more and more likely that TMT will indeed be located on Mauna Kea. As an astronomer myself, I'm happy to see that this time astronomers have been more sensitive to the local concerns over Mauna Kea and I really hope that relations improve between scientists and those opposing the new telescope. Perhaps the key is for us to recognize that there is a real loss of a sacred space for some native Hawaiians and be mindful of the fact even when in disagreement about the future telescope.
Here is the story from the Washington Post. In case you want to hear from the locals on both sides of the debate, here is a letter to the editor (on behalf of The Sierra Club?) in West Hawaii Today against the proposed telescope, and here is a letter in response in the same newspaper (also see this blog post: Is The Sierra Club Anti-Hawaiian?). As you can see this is a complicated issue with religion, politics, environmental concerns, economics, and US history in Hawaii, all mixed in together. While this case is different from the run-of-the-mill science & religion issues (such as evolution), it is still in the domain of science & religion. Instead of epistemology, the debate here is over identity. Tracy Leavelle (Creighton University) and I are close to finishing a paper on the topic, and I hope to provide you with an update on it soon.
In the mean time, here are previous posts on the issue:
Management Plan Approved for Telescopes on Sacred Mauna Kea
Hawaii-Tribune Herald on the recent Mauna Kea lawsuit decision
Mauna Kea Observatories Update
Is it good news that Maui is picked as the site for a new Solar telescope?