Universe World

Decolonising astronomy

Welcome back to a new appointment with "Universe World". This month we meet Thilina Heenatigala, a science communicator working as Director of Communication at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, Japan.

Aggiornato il 1 Dicembre 2021

Thilina Heenatigala. Crediti: Aaron Gronstal

This month, we meet Thilina Heenatigala, a science communicator working as Director of Communication at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, Japan. Originally from Sri Lanka, Thilina is also engaged in the development of astronomy in his home country, where he leads a student research group, and is spreading awareness towards the need for a decolonial approach to astronomy research, education and outreach.

Let’s start from your path: how did you find your way to science outreach and communication?
I have always been interested in astronomy since I was a child. I think one of my earliest childhood memories was looking at the stars, but I didn’t know that it’s a topic that you can study. In a country like Sri Lanka, we are not exposed to this type of career, it is rather encouraged to become a medical doctor, engineer, lawyer or teacher. These are the careers that are encouraged in developing countries: it does make sense as these are the needs of the country and resources go towards them. A field like astronomy comes across as an impossible task and also as a luxury to pursue. As a student I ended up following science subjects and also understood that a strong foundation in sciences would go a long way. But astronomy was highly discouraged as a student and even in my adult life, because there would be no opportunities to go further and of course lack of jobs, and even at a global level it’s highly competitive. Someone from a country like Sri Lanka is a bit discouraged to follow this path because of the low opportunities, but then it was also a challenge and that attracted me.
I was also interested in outreach and education because you get to share the beauty of the universe with people and to inspire the next generation of students. The first global programme I took part in was Universe Awareness (UNAWE) set up by Carolina Ödman back in 2007. I was still studying but through UNAWE we did a lot of work in Sri Lanka with kids and students in orphanages. Then the International Astronomical Union (IAU) started planning the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009). The IYA2009 was truly a global effort which completely changed the way many developing countries like Sri Lanka view and access astronomy. IYA2009 created more opportunities and educational resources. This was the start for me to get into astronomy outreach and education at a global level.

Can you tell our readers a bit about the context of astronomy in Sri Lanka as well as in Japan and other countries where you worked?
In Sri Lanka, we still do not have professional-level astronomy (i.e. university degrees in astronomy, large scale astronomy projects, or facilities). Some of the universities offered a non-credited course in basic astronomy and recently, University of Ruhuna (UoR) has started offering astronomy with credits as a part of their science programme. This is a key step in Sri Lanka, a step towards developing astronomy education and research. I have been collaborating with UoR where a group of selected students do astrometry research on double stars using Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) telescopes(1)Astrometry is the field of astronomy that involves precise measurements of the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies, ed.. I consider this as a pilot effort towards a bigger plan to develop astronomy in Sri Lanka. The first group conducted the research as a learning experience and concluded the project by publishing a paper. Next stage of this effort is to expand into more student groups and to other universities.
For most of my life I worked mainly with European colleagues and institutions, and the past ten years I mostly worked and lived between The Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK, where the level of astronomy is very high. I moved to Japan in 2018 and the level of astronomy here is quite high as well. The three regions that I’m used to – Sri Lanka in the south Asian region, which is much underdeveloped, and then Europe and Japan, which are much more developed – each have their own challenges. In developing countries like Sri Lanka, key challenges for the development of astronomy are resources, expertise and funding, while in Europe there are lots of resources, but a lot of projects – including education and outreach – are done in a Eurocentric way. More often we come across certain guidelines and standards that are set up in a Eurocentric way and other countries and regions are expected to follow these. Also in Japan there are a lot of astronomy research, education and outreach projects, but all of it is done in the local language, so within the country there is a very high level of activities but the dissemination beyond Japan is quite limited; the level of collaboration is lower and one of the issues is the language.

ELSI, Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, Giappone. Crediti: Tokyo Tech

What do you think are the greatest challenges in astronomy outreach and education at a global level?
Challenges definitely change from region to region but there are some common challenges we all share. One of the topics I’m working on currently is how to decolonise astronomy research, education and outreach. This is quite a challenge not only in Europe but also in developing countries: starting from the science curriculum, when we get to astronomy we follow the Eurocentric curriculum, and then when it comes to outreach, some of the major global projects come from Europe. A lot of educational standards, also in astronomy outreach, come from Europe and the United States, and sometimes it’s quite difficult for someone from a country that is not quite as developed, such as Sri Lanka, to follow that kind of framework and to reach that standard level of activities. It feels like we are constantly trying to catch up.
I think this is a challenge we have from both sides: when we create standards, we have to keep in mind that they need to be completely adaptable for local needs, and on the other side, when you try to follow these standards, you need to understand your limitations, otherwise we are going back to the colonisation structure, where someone sets out an agenda and the rest of the population have to follow it. A good example in this context are the standardised tests for higher education, especially in the US, which are quite far from the curriculum we have in many countries – luckily we see a trend of some key US universities moving away from this standardised test and use other ways to determine the level of students’ capacity. We should also be mindful within the astronomy community and be inclusive, especially in the case of global outreach programmes.

What does it mean to decolonise science, and astronomy in particular?
There are three major areas to consider: education, outreach and research. In terms of research, I think there are a few key aspects, for example we can look at the big research programmes and infrastructure. A lot of telescopes are built in specific locations on Earth like Hawaiʻi and Chile, and in the past few years some of these telescope sites have been the location of struggles. A good example is the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaiʻi, where local communities raised their voice against using that ground. These situations can be somehow avoided by having a better understanding of what are the actual local needs, better communication, and understanding of cultures. We usually think of these infrastructures in terms of statistics, for example how many jobs, resources or funding it could bring locally. But we also need to understand what’s important for different cultures and communities. One key solution is to have a science policy officer who can negotiate these issues and to drive more local dialogues. In recent years, we have seen science policy officers being appointed in Europe and US, so I think we are moving towards a better understanding by appointing someone with a more specific background to handle these situations, rather than an astronomer.
Another important aspect in these infrastructures is the imbalance of salaries: many large research programmes have international staff, because the infrastructure is built in a different country, and it’s been identified that the salaries are quite different between an international officer – in order to offer a job for someone to move and settle in a foreign country, it has to be somehow attractive – and someone who is hired locally. It’s a long-term effort, trying to make salaries better both for local and foreign experts: of course, it requires more funding.

What about education and outreach?
When it comes to decolonising astronomy education, in our curriculum we mostly have European inventions and discoveries. We are missing a lot of knowledge that was contributed by other regions such as Asia, Arab and so on, and missing indigenous astronomy. Hence, the current curriculum is quite imbalanced and something we all need to work on and improve.
In terms of outreach, there have been many global efforts, especially in the past 10-15 years. One key aspect to look into is how and whether these global agendas are relevant to every single country. How do they actually benefit each country and community? Are we forcing a global agenda? Perhaps not all the global efforts have local benefits. It is good to have global efforts that bring people together, but those who are organising need to make these programmes be able to adapt to local needs, and on the other hand locally, we must critically look at if this programme really benefits the local audience or not.
Another good example is outreach evaluation: I have written so many reports in outreach and education, and often we focus on showing good numbers, it’s part of the job. In many cases this is a complete misrepresentation: sometimes only one person joined from a certain country, organising one event, but from the report it might look like the entire country joined. Sometimes this has even created issues locally, some local parties were unsatisfied by not having been included. I think that representation should be taken into account properly: we should write instead how many countries joined, for example, or how many events were organised in a country.

Map of Sri Lanka. Credits: Peter Hermes Furian

Are there any more good practices you could recommend or pitfalls to avoid in the process of decolonising astronomy?
Definitely need to move away from the ‘parachute science’ efforts, especially in outreach and research. The idea of parachute science has been there for a very long time: somebody from a Western or Global North, a developed country, goes to a less developed country in the Global South for a one-off effort like a seminar or workshop and then leaves without much of a local relevance, without building any long-term efforts or collaborations.
I would like to admit that I have also contributed to these parachute science efforts in astronomy. When I was a student in Sri Lanka: whenever I got a request from someone from Europe for example who would offer to come to Sri Lanka to give a lecture or a workshop, I would immediately jump into this opportunity without thinking far. This is a result of lack of understanding of ‘colonised science’ and lack of local experts. Any opportunity that comes our way, we tend to say yes. So somebody would come, maybe give a lecture to students, spend some time in Sri Lanka and then leave, with no long-term effort and without thinking how this workshop or lecture could help develop the situation locally. So, it took me a while to understand this process and break away from it.
In bigger astronomy outreach collaborations between developed and developing countries, I have noticed that sometimes a lot of money is spent for people to travel, stay in nice hotels and then do some very basic outreach activities. Things have changed a bit due to the internet making resources more accessible. But we still have a long way to go to decolonise astronomy. Something that could really help, whenever we collaborate with another country, would be to look critically at the local needs, and whether the objectives align with those needs, and to treat the local experts as real experts, not just ask them to follow your agenda.
Another important thing about large research projects concerns the return of investment. One of these criteria is the number of publications and how we disseminate knowledge locally. Interestingly, if you look at the number of publications in many large scale collaborations, the first authors come from wealthier countries – Europe, the US. Sometimes local students take data and conduct analysis but are not credited in papers. An interesting project would be to look at the SKA Observatory publications: how many first authors are from Europe and how many from Africa.

How is this work of decolonising astronomy received by the astronomy community?
Currently there are a handful of people discussing decolonising astronomy within the larger community. My experience has not been very positive: every time I give a talk or lead a discussion, it mostly comes as a controversial topic. Some of the immediate reactions are: “but it’s not relevant to me”; “but we provide a lot of resources”; “are you suggesting we stop helping?”; “but I know they are grateful for our support”; “but we are helping”… These comments are frequent, and I always explain that I’m in an interesting position to look at all this. About 15-20 years ago, I was part of the system that contributed towards colonising astronomy: while in Sri Lanka, I would say yes to every single opportunity without really thinking long term. My experience in Sri Lanka as a student and the work experience in Europe has given me an interesting perspective of decolonising astronomy. I was always between these two worlds, being paid from Europe but also trying to improve astronomy in developing countries all the while thinking: how do we actually do these in a more effective way? So every time I talk about this topic, I try to explain that I have been on both sides.
We have a long way to go, but with the few people working on this topic we are planning to organise a symposium or session to bring everyone together. Hopefully that will be a good next step towards getting more discussions and awareness into this.

Are there any authors or events that influenced you in this process?
Decolonising science is generally more visible in other disciplines like marine biology or geology. The scientists in those fields need samples. A lot of times, scientists from wealthier countries go to developing countries to collect samples, sometimes without even informing local experts. It became quite evident during the pandemic because travelling was not possible, and in order to get samples, scientists needed to rely on local experts. There are many stories that we hear that the local experts were given opportunities to do their job. Some of these disciplines are playing a more active role in decolonising science than astronomy, we are quite behind in astronomy. I became more aware about the topic from other sciences and during the pandemic I also thought it’s a good opportunity within astronomy to bring the topic into the light. It’s also a good time for the astronomy community because we are starting the new IAU strategy for the next decade, with a focus on developing astronomy globally: it’s important we are aware of these issues and take action in research, education and outreach by avoiding anything towards colonial astronomy.

Thilina Heenatigala during outreach activities with students at an orphanage in Sri Lanka in 2010.

Can you tell us something about your work developing astronomy research in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is not an IAU member, we don’t have research level astronomy at universities going. As a Sri Lankan it’s one of the key goals that I am actively engaged in improving. For a long period, the two major issues have been lack of resources and expertise – this is relevant to many developing countries – and it’s not easy to acquire these two needs without funding. But astronomy is evolving and the internet is readily available. A lot of observational data from large telescopes are available online, regardless of where you come from. And there are programmes such as LCO that offer telescope time. This allows developing countries to conduct astronomy research without having to build infrastructure and astronomers locally.
We are exploring a strategy where physics courses in universities in Sri Lanka include astronomy research by combining expertise locally and from abroad, and use databases or remote observing facilities. This allows to conduct astronomy research without having the need to foriegn experts to travel, which saves both parties a lot of money. Currently we are running astrometry research projects, which we hope will eventually become a part of the curriculum and as a credited course. This is the first step towards the first generation of astronomers in Sri Lanka by offering a bachelor degree in sciences with a specialisation in astronomy. And hopefully within the next 5-10 years, we will get to offer the first astronomy degrees locally. By combining local and foreign experts with the use of virtual data sets and remote observations, we don’t need to build local infrastructure: this saves so much money. Currently we run this programme at two universities, we plan to expand to more universities in Sri Lanka and then develop from there. I think it’s a good model for developing countries.

How do students respond to these initiatives?
Our pilot group of students went quite well. But I also noticed some hesitancy because it requires a certain level of maths, physics and programming. But as the time goes by, more students are interested. We have to find a way to handle this model, to somehow limit but not restrict participation: it’s an opportunity students would love to have and we don’t want to discourage anyone.

What are the most exciting and most frustrating aspects in this job?
The most frustrating part is probably that most collaborations require us to show immediate results. This requirement can be quite frustrating locally because for example the internet might not be readily available when you need to download data or access telescopes, sometimes students may have no access to computers. There could also be local issues that are quite common in developing countries, e.g.; the university might be closed for certain periods. Sometimes producing results can be quite challenging, and the high expectations from foreign parties do not necessarily translate very well locally. In our specific case, we have been very lucky: we use mainly the Las Cumbres Observatory and they have been quite flexible.
The most exciting thing for me personally is to see students actually getting to do research and get papers published while in Sri Lanka. That’s an opportunity I would have loved to have when I was a student there, so it feels really good to create this opportunity for our students.

What is your message to fellow astronomers in Italy and worldwide?
For many astronomers based in Italy and other developed countries, it’s important to think in such a way that your work can be translated into many other countries, especially for students. If you have an opportunity to spare some time and share your expertise, there are so many students from developing countries waiting for these opportunities, but it has to be done in a way that is more strategic and long-term, not like parachute science. In this sense, I think the IAU is in a place to foster collaborations and help the development of astronomy.

Thilina Heenatigala is a science communicator and currently works as the Director of Communication at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, Japan, where he manages the institute’s outreach and science communication activities. He is also a research affiliate at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and collaborates with the IAU’s Office of Astronomy Outreach (OAO). Originally from Sri Lanka, he leads an effort to develop astronomy education and research in Sri Lanka. Currently he supervises research projects of university students in Sri Lanka that conducts remote astronomy observations.


1 Astrometry is the field of astronomy that involves precise measurements of the positions and movements of stars and other celestial bodies, ed.

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Claudia Mignone Claudia Mignone

Astrofisica e comunicatrice scientifica, tecnologa all'Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica.