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Renewal of Maunakea master lease the top priority for new Institute for Astronomy director

  • SIMONS

Doug Simons said when he assumes his post as director of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy on Sept. 1, a great deal of his focus will be on the renewal of UH’s master lease for the Maunakea Science Reserve.

The lease for the 11,288-acre site — which hosts several of the world’s premier astronomical observatories — expires in 2033. A nonexclusive easement for the Maunakea Access Road, about 71 acres, also expires in 2033. The lease for the 19-acre Halepohaku facility expires in 2041.

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“If we lose Maunakea astronomy, we’ll lose most of Hawaii astronomy. And then, in my opinion, everybody loses,” said Simons, whose appointment to head one of UH-Manoa’s most prestigious units became official at today’s Board of Regents meeting. “That, to me, would be a tragedy if we were to lose a field of science in which Hawaii has established a … leadership role on truly a global basis.”

Simons will have his work cut out for him.

In 2019, opponents of the $2.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project staged a massive blockade of Maunakea Access Road. The protest, organized by Native Hawaiians — some of whom consider Maunakea sacred — kept construction workers and equipment from scaling the mountain.

Then, at the start of the current legislative session, House Speaker Scott Saiki said in a brief floor speech that UH “should no longer manage Maunakea, and it should cease its work to extend the master lease.”

Saiki’s comments led to the passage of a resolution establishing a working group with diverse stakeholders to explore alternative management structures for Maunakea.

“It’s a difficult time,” Simons noted. “Obviously, renewal of the master lease — which all the observatories need to go beyond their current arrangements — is front and center. And it’s actually pivotal for the Institute for Astronomy, which relies on those facilities to provide research opportunities for its faculty and graduate students.”

Simons said he will “do what I can do, obviously, to advance TMT.”

“Where I believe I can actually be more influential, more helpful, is to focus on that long-term agreement for all the observatories, including TMT, because that’s central to not only Maunakea astronomy, but Hawaii astronomy,” he said. “And because Hawaii astronomy is demonstrably No. 1 worldwide … it’s essential to the entire field of science, of astronomy.

“There are unique challenges now that certainly weren’t in place a long time ago. And that really amplifies the importance of working with the community — all aspects of the community — to gain a sense of what I think of as joint ownership in the future of Hawaii astronomy. And I have a fairly long record of working within the community on a variety of fronts, and I think that’s one of the reasons the university hired me, because of my built-in community relations and network here on Hawaii Island.”

That record includes helping to establish educational initiatives such as the Maunakea Scholars program, where public high school students can apply for observing time across the Maunakea Observatories for their own independent research proposals and be mentored by IfA graduate students. His community service includes the Maunakea Management Board, Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce.

Simons, 58, a married father of three, has lived on the Big Island for 35 years and for the last eight has been the director of Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope after being Gemini Observatory director from 2006–2011. He earned both his master’s and doctorate degrees in astronomy from IfA and started working on Maunakea as a graduate student.

Simons will maintain his primary base of operations at the IfA Building at University Park on the UH-Hilo campus.

“It’s a little different model than has been used in the past, where the director has always been based at Manoa,” he said. “I will rely on Zoom and Hawaiian Airlines to get me back between Maui and Manoa, to keep up with what’s already a distributed program.”

Jennifer Lotz, director of the Gemini Observatory, said she’s “looking forward to working closely” with Simons “in his new role at this critical time for astronomy in Hawaii.”

“Doug brings decades of experience and a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the next decade,” Lotz said. “I’m particularly pleased that he has decided to remain based on the Big Island and maintain his close connections to the broader community on the island.”

Hilton Lewis, director of the W.M. Keck Observatory, called Simons “the right person at the right time” to lead IfA.

“His involvement in the community, I can say, is totally from the heart,” Lewis said. “He’s not doing it because he was the CHFT director. He really believes in the future of astronomy and … the community here.”

Simons said if UH loses the Maunakea master lease and TMT goes to its backup site of La Palma in the Spanish Canary Islands, it would be “a tragic loss that is just irreplaceable.”

“It all comes down to the next generation … and what we stand to lose, and that is future opportunities for our keiki,” he explained. “And I really strive to see a sense of community ownership in the future of Maunakea astronomy. … I would just be ecstatic to see somebody born and raised in Hawaii be IfA director, to have my job, to be that director of telescopes on Maunakea.

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“That, for me, would be a crowning achievement for our community, and I think, would relax quite a bit the strain between the community and the observatories that you see now.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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