By: Doug Simons, Chair, Economic Development Committee 2020-2021
It’s been a pleasure and a great learning experience to organize and chair the economic development committee (EDC) meetings over the past year, with speakers including two mayors, multiple County Office Directors, the HTA CEO, and many more. If there’s been a common thread across these monthly meetings it has been the passion and dedication evident in those filling these crucial roles for our community. All speakers connected the importance of economic equity, viability, and sustainability with the needs of our community at many levels. Whether its modernizing the County planning systems or reimagining the visitor industry in a post COVID world, each of our speakers has been making important contributions, in their own ways, to a better Hawaii Island.
While my experiences in business systems, government, and administration don’t compare to our speakers over the past year, several EDC meetings ago a request was made for me to provide an update about Maunakea astronomy, and since then I’ve reserved my final EDC meeting as chair for that purpose. During our June 17 meeting I covered a lot of ground in a presentation for our committee, to hopefully better inform them about how far Hawaii astronomy has come in the past ~50 years, and the astonishing possibilities on our horizon, this century. Behind it all, what has made this possible for our community and the field of astronomy has been and will be Maunakea as a superb site for studying the universe. Perhaps the most important aspect of Maunakea for this purpose is its shape as a shield volcano, surrounded by thousands of miles by the Pacific Ocean. That combination, which is unique on our entire planet, lends to relatively little turbulence in the air that flows up and over Maunakea and accordingly, clear and pristine images of celestial objects that are rare at most other major observatory sites. The Maunakea Observatories comprise Hawaii’s only billion-dollar scientific research complex, and combined consistently rank #1 worldwide in a metric called “science impact”, which is the product of the number and citations of professionally produce research papers stemming from the Maunakea Observatories. Beyond creating an exceptional research legacy, the Maunakea Observatories aggregate ~$75M annually in operating funds from Federal research agencies (like the National Science Foundation). Most of that is spent on Hawaii Island via the salaries of the 500+ community members that work at the observatories, and the 100+ contractors, vendors, and suppliers on Hawaii Island that provide critical support for the observatories. Beyond providing the most green high-tech jobs of any organization on the island, the current Maunakea Observatories sponsor ~2 million dollars of education, outreach, and workforce development that engages 10,000+ island residents each year. They also spearhead advanced infrastructure including high speed Internet2 services used for education and research, and the most sophisticated weather forecasting service in the state using a super computer to provide daily forecasts that are available to the public.
I highlighted a pair of programs that help link high school students to college education, and college students to jobs. These include the Maunakea Scholars program and Akamai Workforce Initiative respectively. To date nearly a thousand students from a dozen high schools on 6 islands have participated in the Maunakea Scholars program, which matches high school students with University of Hawaii, Institute for Astronomy graduate student mentors to develop their own research projects that are evaluated by Maunakea Observatory astronomers and awarded observing time. This program is unique worldwide – only Hawaii students have access to such an educational resource. Likewise the Akamai intern program, which has been matching Hawaii college students with internships at high-tech facilities on Maui and Hawaii Island (mostly the Maunakea Observatories), has been an incredibly successful means for college students to engage in meaningful projects in an intensive summer program.To date 125+ Akamai interns have gotten jobs in Hawaii and a stunning 88% of Akamai interns to date remain in STEM education or employment. Connecting local students with education resources and ultimately highly sought after jobs that make it possible for them to remain in Hawaii as valuable members of our community is an important part of the legacy of Hawaii astronomy. As a veteran in Hawaii astronomy, starting with my education at the University of Hawaii back in the 1980’s, then as Director of two Maunakea Observatories and soon the UH Institute for Astronomy, I take great pride in doing what I can to make it possible for these opportunities to arise for our keiki. They literally represent the future of Hawaii astronomy and through that, an important part of the future of our community, who make it all possible in the first place.