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Lawmakers react positively to Decadal Survey results

Two U.S. Congressional committees were pleased with a recent survey naming the Thirty Meter Telescope as a priority project for federal funding.

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittees on Space and Aeronautics and Research and Technology held a hearing to discuss the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, a list of current and upcoming astronomy projects that are recommended targets for funding from the National Science Foundation.

Topping the survey’s list of ground-based astronomy projects was the Extremely Large Telescope Project, a joint project whereby the NSF would allocate $800 million to both the TMT and the Chile-based Giant Magellan Telescope.

Members of Congress attending the hearing reacted positively to the proposed project, with Don Beyer, D-Virginia, chair of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, eager to lend congressional support to a recommendation within the survey to improve relationships between the astronomy industry and the Hawaiian community.

“The Maunakea telescope — that was all interrupted by the protests over how indigenous people were built into it,” Beyer said. “Is there anything we could do in Congress, a bipartisan effort, to help with those community-astronomer (relationship) models?”

Robert Kennicutt, co-chair of the survey’s steering committee, said the survey’s recommendation was intended largely for the astronomy industry’s professional community, but added that a congressional endorsement could have significant impacts on the project.

“Of course, if the NSF becomes a partner of the (TMT) project, and Maunakea is still a site under consideration, the federal government will have a role and will have to meet certain guidelines — environmental impact, cultural impact and so on,” Kennicutt said.

However, some of the participating congresspeople had concerns with the survey’s recommendation.

Haley Stevens, D-Michigan, was worried about the high projected cost of operating both the TMT and GMT: The joint project would require an estimated $32 million per year to operate.

Kennicutt acknowledged the high cost, pointing out that the percentage of the NSF’s budget dedicated to facilities management has been increasing year-by-year, and could run the risk of squeezing out other projects worthy of funding. On the other hand, he added that the astronomical value of managing large facilities in both hemispheres is worth the cost.

Another attendee, Brian Babin, R-Texas, questioned the sensibility of federal involvement in the TMT, given the involvement of foreign governments in the project.

In particular, Babin said that, because the Chinese government is a partner in the TMT project, he worries that NSF involvement could lead, however obliquely, to federal funds being used to advance Chinese military capabilities, or open up American technology to the possibility of theft by Chinese agents.

Kennicutt said such concerns fell outside the scope of the survey.

Doug Simons, director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, said Babin’s concerns could be valid, but added that he and many others in the American astronomy community have had “very fruitful scientific collaborations” with Chinese astronomers throughout the years.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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