President’s Report

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn / l’automne 2019)

Dear CASCA Members,

I sincerely hope the Fall term has begun well for you. A new academic year can often bring new and unanticipated challenges. Most of the messages I’ve sent so far have been ones of acknowledgement and/or updates. In this message I thought I’d discuss some difficult issues we face as a scientific community.

I’m reasonably sure that many of us see astronomy as something that should bring people together, be it families, communities, even nations. My grandfather “Dadger” taught me some of the constellations and was the first person to show me a lunar eclipse (my roots are from a small fishing village). But going broader, every culture has their own sky lore and stories. Sharing them is potentially a way to build bridges and a starting point for wider discussions.

Yet that is really a modern viewpoint reflecting astronomy’s wider perception in western societies of having philosophical impacts that outweigh the practical. Of course, astronomy does have practical value today, but it is not immediately self-evident to many. Indeed, I visit Ottawa regularly to make astronomy’s practical implications more widely understood. But go back 100+ years and western astronomy played a very distinct role in ensuring security through timekeeping and the associated surveying. Its practical significance overshadowed its philosophical implications, and in many ways, it can be seen as a tool that furthered colonial agendas.

Therein lies a significant difference between our internal perception of our field vs that held by many scholars outside it. Astronomy is not measured solely by its current research outputs, as spectacular and awe-inspiring as they may be. As the facilities we build get larger, the nature of our field and the perceptions of it change. The term “astronomy industry” may garner a rueful smile when we read it, knowing as we do that our “product” is largely knowledge, and yet outside the field it is a term often used. Once projects reach the billion-dollar level that kind of language is not surprising.

Much of what I’m going to discuss finds genesis in the current TMT situation, but I’d like to take a step back and consider astronomy’s impact elsewhere. Having visited South Africa in 2016, I have found discussions of astronomy’s role within the country to offer several distinct and thought-provoking perspectives. See [1] and references therein for a detailed discussion social and political developments related to the SKA and astronomy within South Africa.

After years of apartheid, the Mandela and later governments sought to establish a “less militaristic” path forward and astronomy was chosen as one of the key science areas. The enormous internal changes going on in the country were also set against an increasingly global perspective, and a desire to position South Africa as an active and deserving member of the global knowledge economy. To this end, South Africa’s 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology includes the following passage:

“scientific endeavour is not purely utilitarian in its objectives and has important associated cultural and social values. It is also important to maintain a basic competence in ‘flagship’ sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons. Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future – the view that we are a second class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.”

In [1] the funding that resulted for astronomy is argued as being a result of “canny marketing of astronomy as a national ‘feel-good’ story.” This is not so much a criticism of the intentions of scientists, but rather an acknowledgement of political aspirations in a global context, and the endeavours of a number of key actors within the government.

Hidden in the above, is one of the greatest challenges astronomy faces. The international “mega-project” nature of many projects positions the field at a policy/social interface where global aspirations conflict against local. For optical astronomy the concerns can be localized to the site and local light ordinances. These can be highly complex of course, potentially having both environmental and human (land) rights concerns. However, for radio astronomy the need for low backgrounds can create severe constraints on local communication infrastructure across large areas. For the often economically disadvantaged communities in the Karoo that desire modern communication infrastructure, is it reasonable to tell them that they must forfeit a cellphone?

The South African government has decreed that areas of land can be set aside for astronomy projects. The “Astronomy Advantage Areas” are regions of land controlled for the purposes of scientific progress, while several key areas were also directly purchased. These decisions might seem a reasonable step to us as international collaborators, and indeed were done in consultation with the San Council and other groups representing interests in the Karoo. Numerous public consultations were held by the SKA. Yet we are very distant from the local concerns and aspirations of the Karoo communities who feel their voices were not heard.

Astronomy is firmly in an era where the “costs” involved go beyond just monetary, into the social, political and legal (human rights). Of course, there remain some places without human habitation, but for most of the remote places astronomy seeks to build infrastructure, there are indigenous peoples or local residents and questions we must face. While issues surrounding a given project/region are always distinct, they can span the spectrum of development concerns from too little to too much.

For all the challenges outlined here, I remain resolutely behind the scientific goals and the value of the knowledge being sought. I have conducted hundreds of interviews in support of the amazing research we do. But the routes to gaining this knowledge are becoming ever more layered and can have impacts that we may not anticipate. Precisely how the global to local interface is approached may become the defining factor in the future success of our field.

Ultimately, it is astronomy’s very nature to seek pristine and frequently remote lands for facilities. That means the issues we see being raised in Hawai’i, South Africa and other places are likely to become bigger concerns in the future. While we might look to political routes to solve these problems for us, the harsh reality is we are the individuals that develop and propose facility concepts. Engineers take ethics courses, have ethics committees review projects and undergo community consultations, but this is not a route to avoiding conflict or demonstrations. Just consider the many hydroelectric dam projects or oil pipelines that are contested. And to make matters even more complex, no society whether western or indigenous, is always uniform in its viewpoints. That said, I appreciate the issue of differences of viewpoints can be highly nuanced for indigenous peoples and profoundly influenced by colonial legacies.

Awareness and respect of local/cultural issues combined with truly active engagement and learning is something that we must continue to build. It’s one thing to say that knowledge from astronomy benefits everyone, but there’s a growing onus on astronomers to make connections that fulfil that promise.

[1] Cherryl Walker, Davide Chinigò & Saul Dubow (2019) Karoo Futures: Astronomy in Place and Space – Introduction, Journal of Southern African Studies, 45:4, 627-639

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