Maunakea: Redirecting the lens onto the culture of mainstream science

A. Kagawa-Viviani
8 min readJul 16, 2019
On Maunakea summit, facing east.

I am a Hawaiian scientist who believes the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) does not belong on Maunakea. For me, however, the conflict over the future of the mountain summit — long assumed to be ‘plum’ territory for astronomy — is a battle for the soul of mainstream science. I am trained in environmental engineering, botany, and geography, and spent the last 20 years of my life immersed in some form of STEM-related research, education, or advocacy. Although I am neither a physicist nor an astronomer, I appreciate that new and groundbreaking tools can enable access to new kinds of data, insights, and opportunities. Yet I am also an advocate of a practice of science that is just and equitable, that considers historical context, power dynamics, diverse sets of stakeholders, and the costs and trade-offs of any given research agenda.

I have not always identified this way. In 2015, I made a decision to more critically engage with the ideologies that underpin the scientific practice. As I read and reflected on ethics, my own family history, and history of how the enterprises of science and education engaged with marginalized peoples, I came to accept that this history is not pretty. We, both scientists and the public, need to acknowledge these dark truths in the history of science and dig past discoveries to understand how scientific advances were made. Science historians remind us of the significant unrecognized labor of women scientists, horrific and unauthorized experiments, intellectual property theft. Schools of science and engineering were often established to accelerate resource extraction through forestry, mining, and agronomy. American educational systems were designed to create model citizens; early boarding schools had the explicit aim to “kill the Indian and save the man.” My own struggle to bring together who I am as a Hawaiian and who I am as a scientist feels like a legacy of this history. History seems a dangerous thing for a scientist to learn, because we then begin to question what and how we’ve been taught.

My interest in science started early with my Hawaiian-Chinese mother who was a soil chemist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She taught me the names of plants and rolled soil between her fingers to assess clay content when we went hiking. In high school, I excelled in AP Physics and participated in science fair; science and math made sense to me. I went on to pursue an undergraduate degree at MIT where I knew I would be pushed to my limits and would be surrounded by brilliant, passionate problem-solvers. Yet every day, I walked to and from campus past the words “MIT girls are fat and ugly” scrawled into the concrete sidewalk outside of my dorm. MIT’s diverse undergrad community made it relatively easy to ignore any insinuation that I or my friends were only admitted because of our female or minority student status. At the end of the day, what mattered most in the MIT hierarchy was an ability to think on your feet and craft elegant solutions.

At MIT, I came to understand that universities are in the business of selling education. Engineering curricula seemed designed to churn out educated wage laborers whose sole job was to solve challenging technical puzzles. To counter my growing cynicism, I looked to MIT’s fledgling D-Lab for socially-oriented tech, which had begun to reveal that science and technology is not innately good. Effective design had to consider constraints of context, people, and place. This definition of appropriate technology sits in contrast to high tech where better equals bigger and faster. I graduated from one of the world’s top science and engineering schools with the understanding that science and technology are useful tools but not cure-alls, although this dogma still dominates public rhetoric.

Fast forward to 2015. I was a preoccupied Hawaiian graduate student at UH Mānoa, and the rapid strengthening of the movement to stop TMT construction caught me by surprise. I was awed and humbled that the seemingly inevitable construction project on this beautiful mauna could be halted through the collective action of people who believed in a particular future for the mountain and who worked in disciplined advocacy through a very organic movement. Many Hawaiʻi Island educators, cultural practitioners, and young people who I deeply respect were — and are still — active in this movement grounded and guided by deep and disciplined aloha.

The movement showed me that collective commitment, centered in caring deeply for something — aloha in its truest sense — can indeed transform people, narratives, and trajectories of history. It gave me hope: could we not draw upon the same kind of collective action, grounded in true aloha, to confront global-scale challenges like climate breakdown?

At the same time, undeniably racist and paranoid views surfaced at UC Berkeley and home at UH Mānoa where a tenured physics faculty claimed rhetorically “…in no way should we go back a few centuries to a stone age culture, with a few (illegitimate) Kahunas telling everyone else how to behave.” The same individual told me to my face that “all Hawaiians should support TMT” and that Hawaiians were being “emotional.”

I began to question whether I wanted to continue to be part of the sciences at UH Mānoa. I no longer had the heart to recruit students to STEM fields. This was incredibly difficult because over the previous decade I had formed my identity around being a champion for STEM. I had spent countless hours of volunteer and paid work judging science fairs, doing outreach, recruiting and mentoring students, organizing symposia, even soliciting the TMT corporation and other local companies for support to send Hawaiʻi teachers to an MIT summer program.

The framing of the TMT conflict in public and science circles was the most painful part of it all. Even now, “Hawaiian vs. science,” “science vs. religion,” “culture vs. science,” “progress vs. stone age,” and other permutations of this trope continue to be paraded around. These statements that equate science to progress and upholding cultural values as backward are experienced by many Hawaiians, myself included, as not only incorrect but also dehumanizing. They caricature traditional culture and Hawaiian people while providing no critical examination of the nature of what we call science.

In 2015, it became clear that the TMT movement unnerved those who were accustomed to having unchallenged authority in decision-making in the UH system, including those who had assumed TMT was green-lighted long ago. It seemed especially problematic for those who preferred that astronomy maintain its historical privilege of relatively unfettered access to the mountain summits of the Hawaiian Islands. Although scientific cultural norms dictate that advancement is made through critique, challenge, and incremental change, 2015 reminded me that within the sciences, the only meaningful critique can come from scientific insiders: those identified by a specific science community as one of their own. All else, it seems, is perceived as an attack on science, an attack on reason and objectivity requiring a “defense of science.”

Maunakea represents a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I continue to experience this as a fight for the heart and soul of mainstream science. A growing number of scientists are beginning to ask: How do we do science? Where we draw the lines of what is appropriate research? How do we balance trade-offs, and whose trade-offs count? What if we were more conscious of our tendency to write blank checks for ideas of professional science progress and advancement and its frontier mentality engine? To me, practices of science in its present form smell a lot like the American Manifest Destiny associated with terrible loss for so many indigenous communities.

And yet I remain dedicated to science: to the curiosity and joy of learning how the world works in all its complexity. I often question whether our current institutions — and the individuals who are part of them — are capable of humble introspection and change. Yet I believe that for us to move forward, for us to de-escalate the current conflict over Maunakea, what must change is how we do science.

So how do we achieve this change? I know this issue is complex, and I do not think a single solution will resolve the issues surrounding TMT. It troubles me deeply to watch what ends the state is willing to go to push this agenda. I’m troubled by the simultaneous tokenizing across the UH system of Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture for performances of cultural sensitivity and consultation laced with appropriation that wins big funding and which UH uses for branding while there is this backhanded institutional attitude toward Hawaiian dissent. It triggers sensations of cognitive dissonance, a kind of institutional gaslighting.

I’m troubled by the self-silencing I observe, both by Hawaiians and kamaʻāina (local, raised in Hawaiʻi) who support the TMT but want to avoid conflict with their neighbors and friends, and by Hawaiians and kamaʻāina who are against TMT but do not want to be accused of being “anti-science.” A particularly precarious group includes individuals within the UH system working in STEM who sympathize with kiaʻi but fear repercussions within their departments, which might affect their ability to work with colleagues, finish a degree, get or keep a job, or sustain a program and their students.

I recognize that funding flowing from big STEM enterprises enables students to enter and stay on STEM pathways, giving them jobs and opportunities not otherwise accessible. Yet the language of “workforce development” and STEM pipelines evokes images of students as cogs in a machine driven by agendas that these young people may not identify with.

How might we instead raise critical thinkers in science and engineering who can boldly reimagine who and what science and engineering are for?

Can we begin to create spaces to interrogate the historical and current inequities and ways STEM training has been and is deployed for incredible advances in human health and understanding, as well as for purposes of dispossession? It’s hard not to be deeply cynical by the frustrations that Maunakea dredges up; I am angry, but I believe that we can and must do better. I imagine that the future can be different.

Where do we go from here?

Let’s get creative. Let’s envision a more equitable future beyond our current dismal state. This is possible, but we need to be bold, take some risks, learn from kiaʻi. We need to be willing to imagine — and commit to — the future and principles we will stand up for.

I stand now for what this future might look like. I stand for Maunakea, for Poliʻahu gracing the slopes, for Waiau shimmering in the sun. I stand for an expansive yet humble, contextualized, thoughtful culture of mainstream science full of a diversity of peoples and views.

Science and culture have long coexisted in Hawaiʻi and I see these ways of knowing are thriving everywhere I look. This coexistence is in archaeological alignments, encoded in mele, cultivated in loʻi, māla, loko iʻa, and shorelines, carried on waʻa, restored in forests, shared from one person to another through stories, exchange, and webs of relationships. We just need to listen, create space, and cultivate.

*Aurora Kagawa-Viviani was raised on the slopes of Puowaina, Oʻahu and studies plants and water as a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environment at UH Mānoa. She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering at MIT, master’s in botany at UHM, and worked in Kohala as a Stanford University field research technician/outreach coordinator and at Kapiʻolani Community College as a pre-engineering program coordinator. She thanks her friends Rosie Alegado, Sara Kahanamoku, and ʻIwakeliʻi Tong for valuable feedback on this commentary.



A. Kagawa-Viviani

ʻōiwi ecohydrologist on a journey of applying scientific methods and decolonizing methodologies