One UC Santa Barbara Foundation trustee proposed naming the Thirty Meter Telescope after Queen Lili‘uokalani — the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, writing in an email to Chancellor Henry T. Yang in July 2021 that “[Queen Lili‘uokalani] would have loved this telescope!”
Yang agreed, writing back that “I have no doubt her experience resonates with the betrayal felt by Native Hawaiians today, and we must work through that for TMT to succeed.”
This exchange is one of many details revealed through emails from Yang’s office between June and September 2021 about the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. Partially funded by the University of California, the project is an endeavor to build a scientific telescope on Hawai’i’s Big Island. UC students and activists protest the project, which would be located on Mauna Kea, land sacred to indigenous Hawaiians.
The UC has kept most details and its annual contributions to the project under wraps. For years, TMT has been mired by controversy, delays and funding deficits. Yang has served as the project’s chair since 2007.
The Nexus filed a California Public Records Act with the University of California Office of the President on July 31, 2021 and received documents and email communication from that request this month. Yang’s responsibilities as chair of TMT are little explained on the TMT website, though the documents the Nexus received indicate a large involvement and authority.
Documents also show that the UC has invested $73,114,382 in the project as of December 2020.
TMT board members have avoided public discussions around the project, revealed through emails from Yang’s office.
Director General at the National Research Council Canada Luc Simard — who is also a member of the TMT board of directors — intended to speak about TMT at the Hawai’i Executive Conference this January. However, Simard brought up concerns with the visibility of the conversation via email.
“I think I can manage a general discussion about reconciliation and science, but this is clearly a big and important topic, and the venue is also highly visible (far from the “quiet conversations” we have been advised to have),” Simard said.
An annual report on UC contributions to TMT obtained by the Nexus stated that the University of California is required to contribute $107,223,485 from 2014 to 2024. The UC pays this off in varied portions every year.
“The participation of The University of California (UC) is an important element of the international partnership to construct the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT),” Edward C. Stone, executive director of the TMT International Observatory, wrote in the email to UC President Michael V. Drake.
Drake will visit UCSB on May 11 to discuss TMT, according to UCSB student group Mauna Kea Protectors. The group is planning a demonstration to coincide with Drake’s visit to protest the project’s construction because the land is sacred ground for native Hawaiians.
The emails the Nexus received include frequent communication from Yang to the following individuals, all of whom are TMT board members: UC Santa Cruz professor and TMT Associate Director Michael Bolte, former UCLA Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Gregg Goldman and Caltech Vice President for Strategy Implementation Diana Jergovic.
This project’s international partnership includes representatives from major research centers in Canada, China and Japan, who serve under Yang — the chair of the board of governors of TMT.
International board members include National Research Council Canada Director General Luc Simard, National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC) Deputy Director General Suijian Xue and National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) Director General Saku Tsuneta.
In whole, Yang’s emails reveal the TMT project’s struggles to acquire sufficient funding, specifically from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — an independent government agency supporting research and education in science and engineering.
“The TMT project is at a standstill until we hear the results of NSF’s … survey on astronomy and astrophysics. The project faces a huge funding deficit because of the delays — the current estimates are as high as $1.5 billion — and there are no conceivable paths forward unless the NSF comes on as a partner in the project,” UC Office of the President (UCOP) Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Nathan Brostrom wrote in an email on June 14, 2021.
As of April 2022, TMT has not yet secured NSF funding for the project.
Brostrom said that for NSF to join the project, TMT needed to rank as a high priority project in NSF’s survey.
NSF survey results released on Nov. 4, 2021 supported construction of TMT and the scientific advancements it provides, but said the telescope would require an enormous amount of funding and “sustained engagement and partnership with local and Indigenous communities.”
At the same time TMT board members were pushing for NSF funding, Robert Shelton met with senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein to advocate for TMT and another large telescope project — the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMTO) — to be included in appropriations for the 2022 fiscal year.
Shelton — president of the GMTO project — informed Yang of these meetings over email.
“We are respectfully requesting that the C/J/S [Commerce, Justice and Science] Subcommittee boost the NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction Account FY22 [fiscal year 2022] bill significantly above the $249M level by adding another $250 million,” Shelton wrote in the email, describing what was discussed with the senators.
Along with securing funding, the documents indicate an emphasis on international cooperation to strengthen the project’s presence.
In an email from July 16, 2021, Xue requested for Yang to deliver a congratulatory speech at the NAOC’s 20th anniversary event to promote the project.
“I believe it is a good opportunity we shall consider to promote TIO or TMT in China in a manner to showcase that TMT is going well with strong engagement of all partner countries and their distinguished institutes,” Xue said.
Yang accepted, saying he would be “glad to contribute congratulatory remarks.”
The emails indicate that Yang had conversations with University of Hawai’i leadership as well. In an email sent September 4, 2021, Director of Hawaiian Culture and Protocols Engagement for the University of Hawai’i at Hilo Taupōuri Tangarō referenced speaking with Yang on indigenous involvement with TMT.
“In conversation with Henry Yang, I am clear that TMT has a golden moment to demonstrate to the world that astronomy, the science, is a leader in working [with] indigenous communities and is sensitive to the impact the science has on sacred spaces,” Tangarō said.
Through these emails, the UC and Yang demonstrate a large financial investment and personal involvement in TMT, despite large student protests over years calling for the UC to divest from the project.