Steve Miller

Interview with Culturally Sensitive Sites Committee Member Steve Miller. Listen to the Audio here

Jarita Holbrook: So, actually I’m going to start with, who are you, Steve Miller?
Steve Miller: I’m the Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) at the moment.
Steve Miller: I’ve been a professor of planetary science and science communication at University College London (UCL).
Steve Miller: I retired about five years ago, but I’m still active in research. I’m responsible for a big outreach and engagement project for the Royal Astronomical Society called RAS 200, and that engages with
audiences and groups that are not the first people you think of when it comes to sort of the regular audience for astronomy outreach activities.
Steve Miller: yeah, so, I’m responsible for chairing the working group RAS 200, which is a project from the Society that engages with groups that aren’t the first people you think about. So, young people that have having an incredibly difficult backgrounds, people who have full time caring responsibilities.
Steve Miller: We are also trying to sort of be part of local cultures: so in Wales in the Eisteddfod, in Cornwall, in Ireland, in Scotland – all around the country basically.
Steve Miller: And it’s, that’s a kind of a million pound outreach and engagement project that we started. Well, I guess, we started thinking about it in 2013, but it’s been running since 2015. And running about you know, working with about 12 project partners. So, that’s my background to this.
Steve Miller: I’m also a trained observational astronomer. So, I’ve been making use of the big observatories around the world, and in particular the Maunakea Observatory: the NASA telescope there, the UK telescope there, Gemini telescope, Keck, and various others as well.
Jarita Holbrook: So, how did you become involved with the culturally sensitive sites committee?
Steve Miller: While I was looking at what young astronomers are doing. And nowadays a lot of them are just simply making use of enormous data sets.
Steve Miller: And they never really get to think about how those data sets were attained? Where they were obtained? And, under what what kind of social and political conditions they were obtained?
Steve Miller: Clearly, Maunakea, that’s quite a well-known area of controversy with the Native Hawaiian Community, or elements of that community, who
are not happy about the existing Observatory, let alone building new telescopes there.
Steve Miller: But a lot of people in the UK are going to be involved with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that’s making use of traditional lands in Australia. It’s making use of traditional lands in South Africa.
Steve Miller: I felt it was important that sort of the young astronomers, well old astronomers as well, but particularly the young astronomers had some feel for what the data meant in terms of the people from whose lands, it was being collected, if you like.
Steve Miller: I proposed to the Royal Astronomical Society that we started to do something about that I got put in touch with Commission C from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the Working Group on Astronomy on Culturally Sensitive Sites. And so the RAS became part of that. Megan Argo, who’s another one of the RAS Vice Presidents, and I represent the RAS on that working group.
Jarita Holbrook: That’s really exciting and I think that your points are well made that we should think about where our data comes from and the implications.
Jarita Holbrook: To the local people when we’re…where they’re extracting it’s like astronomy becomes another extractive industry like coal mining etc so, but hopefully less environmentally damaging.
Jarita Holbrook: So how long has the group, can you give us a little.
Jarita Holbrook: a starting date of the group, because I know you were there for from the beginning of the culturally sensitive sites committee but can you give us a timeline.
Steve Miller: I guess it’s late in 2020 that it’s getting started I think we’re talking between the RAS and the IAU and, in particular we contacted the then President of the IAU Ewine van Dishoeck. And she put us in touch with Steve Gullberg.
Steve Miller: And so we we got discussing, you know how this, this would work out and then I think the first meetings were early in 2021. And we started discussing I might be wrong on that it might be late 2020 but that kind of timeline. And we started discussing the kind of things that we might do.
Steve Miller: And, in particular, there was a feeling that we ought to be making ourselves known at all kinds of conferences, congresses is national astronomy meetings and saw that were going to were going to be held, so we started.
Steve Miller: Thinking about how we would get time at those meetings, how we will put in applications for those meetings, what we wanted to do those meetings, how we would make ourselves much more widely known to the astronomy community. and just as as kind of add an RAS sensitive issue.
Steve Miller: When we talk about astronomy. we also in the RAS mean geophysics as well, so planetary sciences, looking at the Earth as a planet, these are part of the remit of the Royal Astronomical Society. But just for shorthand
we just use the term astronomy. But I think it is important, and particularly if you consider that a lot of geophysics activity is taking place on the ground in all sorts of places.
Jarita Holbrook: So, what is your hope for that Culturally Sensitive Sites committee.
Steve Miller: I would like to think that
as our work progresses, our communities are becoming more sensitized to the issues around where they’re siting their facilities, where they’re getting their data from, what it means for local populations, and that it’s less of a kind of
a smash and grab raid, if you like.
Steve Miller: I have to say when I first started observing on Maunakea the guy I was working with, Bob Joseph, who was then the director of the NASA infrared telescope facility, he did point out to me that, you know, Maunakea is a sacred mountain for the Hawaiian community and to treat it with respect. Well, I always treat the environment with respect and so I did, and I tried to. But I don’t think for many years, I was really aware of quite the cultural importance, the cultural sensitivities, etc. I mean, I would go up on to the summit, take the data, enjoy the views, enjoy one or two days here and there on the Big Island, sometimes a bit in Honolulu, but without taking very much away from it. It wasn’t until I had a sabbatical out there in the early 1990s I spent time in Hilo at the Institute for Astronomy and at that time there were discussions about setting up the ‘Imiloa Center for astronomy education and outreach.
Steve Miller: Hilo, for example, just didn’t really seem to have any astronomy presence outside of that very little area in the university campus and you could go around. The town, without ever realizing that this was the foremost observatory in the world was located on the Big Island. And that it meant that mountain, where it was located meant a lot to local people. You just didn’t realize that but I started to get thinking about you know. This this is this is important we got it we got to do something about it.
Jarita Holbrook: Well that’s very, very interesting information, but you haven’t been clear about when you’re talking about “our Community” Community community.
Jarita Holbrook: I think an earlier blog I did talk about how we are all coming from academic backgrounds and we’re not trying to convinced.
Jarita Holbrook: The Hawaiians that we’re the good guys. We’re not trying to do that. We’re trying to educate our communities, our academic communities to.
Jarita Holbrook: about the issues that are that are are attached to our data collection and where we collect our data. So, um so did you want to talk more about our communities, or are you fine with me, leaving that definition.
Steve Miller: Right. So, I am coming to this and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Clearly, I am an elderly white white male from a relatively privileged background insofar as I’m a university professor. I won’t say life has always been a bed of roses but, you know, compared with some people I don’t feel I have a great deal to grumble about. When I’m talking about “our communities,” I tend to think of myself in the kind of the academic professional astronomy community. But I recognize that this Community overlaps with impinges on communities in localities where we do, where we do our work.
Steve Miller: Are are we, the good guys or the bad guys or the neutral guys or the intermediate guys, and so I tend not to find that incredibly helpful, I would hope.
Steve Miller: That there are ways of encouraging mutual respect.
Steve Miller: I rather like the definition of the ‘Imiloa Center, for example, they consider themselves to be a space for safe disagreement.
Steve Miller: And I think that that’s not a bad definition so I’m not expecting to people to sort of agree that astronomy is great, and has done nothing but wonderful things for the communities where we work.
Steve Miller: I would like to think that we can still talk with people who disagree with what the astronomy communities are doing without it becoming over- polarized and without it coming to blows.
Jarita Holbrook: What have you in particular, done while, on the Culturally Sensitive Site Committee.
Steve Miller: I think I’ve done two things. I have brought this issue more to the attention of the Royal Astronomical Society than it ever had before.
Steve Miller: We do have a heritage committee, we have some very good people on that committee, and they’ve been banging away at some of these issues for quite some time now, but I think that being on Council being a Vice President of the RAS that’s been quite influential within the Society itself.
Steve Miller: For the kind of the wider astronomy community in the UK, we had a, what I consider to have been a pretty successful workshop and last year’s National Astronomy Meeting. Now, given that we had to do this via zoom, we weren’t allowed to do it in person.
Steve Miller: Well, running workshops via zoom is not the easiest thing to do, particularly if you want to do things like breakout groups and small discussions and sort of, that, that can get quite complicated.
Steve Miller: And you always have technical problems. I think if we could have done it in person, we might have been a lot more effective. But, nonetheless, my feeling is that that workshop. did actually bring some issues to people’s minds and they were able to engage with it, and the way we did it was to say “okay –
Stonehenge”. Stonehenge is iconic. Probably it’s iconic around the world. It’s certainly iconic in Europe and the UK.
Steve Miller: What will you feel as UK people because that’s who was mainly there at the National Astronomy Meeting. What would you feel if a group of astronomers came up with the idea of building a huge radio telescope right next to the Standing stones in Stonehenge? How would you feel about that? Would you feel that that was enhancing the site? Was enhancing the cultural significance of Stonehenge?
Steve Miller: Or would you feel it was rather violating something? That, although the stones might only occupy a relatively small area it’s the whole site it’s the whole vista that you get right across the Salisbury Plain where Stonehenge is located, and that somehow would be violated.
Steve Miller: I mean it’s you know it it’s an ongoing issue anyway… Okay there aren’t any proposals to build the overwhelmingly giant radio equipment for cosmology and astrobiology, there aren’t any current plans, at least not that I know about to do that. But at the same time, we are continually being bombarded with schemes or how to make Salisbury Plain more accessible. How to make it this, how to make it that? And so on and so forth. But, many people
feel would really do great damage to the significance of the site. That we’re only even now, I would say, beginning fully to appreciate the full significance of that site.
Steve Miller: That we’re only even now, I would say, beginning fully to appreciate the full significance of that site so.
Steve Miller: Put it like that. UK astronomers and probably a lot of other people can say, “Hey yeah that’s not such a good idea. I don’t really fancy that very much at all.”
Steve Miller: And then you can open up a discussion, and you can say, well, right now, how does that translate to other parts of the world where the UK astronomy Community feel that they have interests. And, like want to make advances and so on. How are you going to take tackle things in First Nations lands in Australia or South Africa? Or something like that? So, if you feel your teeth set on edge by the idea of building something big and overwhelmingly giant, and so on and so forth, like that in Stonehenge, what about in these other lands belonging to other indigenous populations? How do you feel about that? And, I think that worked quite well as a way of getting discussion started.
Steve Miller: Now, the task is going to be to follow that up. So, I would say that one specific events that we did, and we are planning to make use of scenarios like that in other workshops and other other conferences.
Steve Miller: That’s great. Plus the kind of the the general sensitisation of the society, I would say that’s what i’ve been able to do. And I want to say that this is not just me, because i’ve been working closely with Megan Argo, who is another of the Society’s Vice presidents. And she is very much involved and has had great involvement with the peoples in the Australian site where the SKA is being is being is being built. So, she’s got practical experience with that with that group of people. And hopefully at some point in a future blog she will get to talk about it.
Jarita Holbrook: So, sadly, you may be rolling off of our committee this later this year and I wanted to let you have a chance to talk about what you’d like to do before you leave the Committee.
Steve Miller: um. So there are a number of things that I think the RAS is going to let me do in kind of a life after death scenario.
Steve Miller: And so, if I’m no longer on on the Council. I think that, you know, we’ve generated enough momentum the RAS is happy for me to represent them a bit longer. And so one of the conferences that
the RAS will be attending is the European Astronomical Society Meeting in June early July of this year. That’s going to be an in person meeting and the RAS is already making preparations to be represented there. And, I hope to be one of the representatives at least that seems to be the thinking at the moment. So, that’s something that I would, I would like.
Steve Miller: And then. even if I don’t represent the RAS on the Committee –
and it’s up to the Council decide to decide how they want to be representated –
I think there’s room for individuals to be members, so I don’t want to kind of roll off the map, roll off the committee in terms of no longer being an official RAS representative, but I don’t want to roll off the committee in terms of being somebody who is involved with an interest. This is work that is this is quite close to my heart.
Steve Miller: and
Steve Miller: I think there is room to be there as an individual.
Jarita Holbrook: Thank you for your time and I think that that is a.
Jarita Holbrook: good thing to end with. a with a statement that you know the the committee itself is open to individuals.
Jarita Holbrook: That are just interested in learning more and and teaching more about these these issues you don’t have to have a official capacity and and we do have young people on the committee.
Jarita Holbrook: That are not you know they don’t they don’t hold any official titles. So, we are welcoming welcoming and inclusive committee, so thank you very much!

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