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Exploring Uncertainty and Risk in Contemporary Astrobiology (EURiCA)

Rocket blasting off

Astrobiology is an unusual scientific field in a number of ways. One thing that sets it apart is the degree of uncertainty compared with other fields: open questions abound, and in recent decades astrobiologists have been surprised by unanticipated developments, both theoretical and empirical. On several occasions a possible biosignature has caused excitement, only later to be dismissed as of abiotic origin, one of the most famous examples being the alleged ‘fossils’ in a fragment of Martian meteorite known as ALH84001.

Such uncertainty generates significant disagreement in the community. For example, astrobiologists are divided on the extent to which ‘life’ should count as a reasonable explanation of a given phenomenon for which no abiotic account currently exists (most recently, apparent phosphine on Venus). The central concept in the field is the ‘biosignature’ concept, but there remains serious disagreement concerning when it is appropriate to use the word ‘biosignature’, or even what the word ‘biosignature’ means. In addition, astrobiologists are aware of the fact that some of the most important advances in the field have had surprising origins, and several projects and missions have made discoveries that were not anticipated at the planning stage or during competition for funding.

Thus a re-think is warranted when it comes to a range of foundational questions, especially as regards central concepts in the field and overall scientific methodology, including appropriate handling of ‘risk’ and ‘reward’ when it comes to project design and funding. In this project – the first of its kind – we critically examine the foundations of astrobiology over a sustained period of time, combining scientific, philosophical, and historical perspectives and methods. We will model the actual and ideal distribution of community effort devoted to low/medium/high-risk research, drawing on cautionary tales from recent history. This research is intended to lead to a definite strategy for balancing risks and rewards in projects/missions, particularly in biosignature research, not only benefiting astrobiology, but also illuminating neglected questions in philosophy of science.

This project will take a major step forward in establishing the foundations of astrobiology as a transdisciplinary research field with potentially transformative consequences for scientific practice.

Broadly, the project objective is to critically analyse both conceptual and methodological practices in astrobiology, particularly as regards attitudes to ‘risk’ and ‘reward’ in the face of great uncertainty, in order to offer concrete proposals for better practice moving forward. This breaks down as follows: 

  1. To deliver a PhD-length analysis of biosignature concepts.
  2. To catalogue cautionary tales from the recent history of astrobiology.
  3. To catalogue low/medium/high-risk astrobiology projects and missions awarded significant funding during the past ~20 years, including a comparison of the originally-proposed payoffs with the actual payoffs.
  4. To canvass and publish the opinions of senior figures in the community concerning the relationship between ‘risk’ and ‘reward’.
  5. To consider how effectively risks and rewards are balanced during selected astrobiology mission operations (e.g. landing site selection for Mars rovers).
  6. To draw lessons for astrobiology from the ‘scientific community modelling’ debate within philosophy of science.
  7. To make a concrete contribution to the philosophy of scientific methodology.
  8. To critically assess Carol Cleland’s proposals for methodology of astrobiology.
  9. To draw lessons for biosignature research from the ‘unconceived alternatives’ debate within philosophy of science.
  10. To draw lessons for biosignature research from the ‘simplicity’ debate within philosophy of science.
  11. To help establish the foundations of astrobiology as a transdisciplinary research field with potentially transformative consequences for scientific practice.

Meet the team . . . 

Prof Peter Vickers

Durham University

PI

PV team pic

In 2003 Peter received a BSc in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of York, followed by an MA (2005) in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Leeds. This led to a PhD (2009), also at Leeds, supervised by Prof. Steven French. He then spent a year as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, USA (2010-11), completing his first book Understanding Inconsistent Science (Oxford University Press, 2013). Since 2011 he has been a full time member of staff in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University, UK. His latest book, Identifying Future-Proof Science, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022.

Prof Chris Greenwell

Durham University

Co-Investigator 

 

Dr Sean McMahon

University of Edinburgh

Co-Investigator

 

Sean works at the interface of geology, microbiology, palaeontology, and astrobiology, with a particular focus on the search for life on Mars. He holds an MEarthSci from Oxford, a PhD in Geology from Aberdeen, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of London (external programme). He investigated the biogeochemistry of fossilization as a NASA-funded postdoc at Yale from 2014 to 2017 and then returned to the UK as an EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, where is now a Chancellor’s Fellow and co-director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology. In 2019 he completed a visiting fellowship at Durham’s Institute for Advanced Study.

 

Prof Martin Ward

Durham University

Co-Investigator

MW smaller 
 

Cat Gillen

Durham University

PhD Student

 

Dr Cyrille Jeancolas

Durham University

Postdoctoral Associate

CJ team pic

In 2018 I received an engineering degree in Biochemistry from AgroParisTech (MSc), which led to a PhD in Molecular Biology (2021) from the Université de Paris. I carried out my interdisciplinary doctoral research jointly at the Laboratory of Biophysics and Evolution (LBE) of ESPCI Paris-PSL and at the Laboratory of Social Anthropology of the Collège de France, under the supervision of Dr. Philippe Nghe and Dr. Perig Pitrou. My research brought together biochemical, philosophical and anthropological approaches to questions related to the origin of life and the quest for its synthesis in the laboratory. I experimentally analyzed pre-biological biomolecular systems with evolutionary properties, and studied influences between conceptions of life and research on its origins, by taking ESPCI laboratories as a field of ethnographic investigation. As a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the department of Philosophy of Durham University within the EURiCA project from 2022, I am cataloguing astrobiology projects and missions over the past 20 years, focusing on the relationship between the degree of risk and the eventual payoff. This research is complemented by interviews with senior astrobiologists concerning their own experiences and perspectives on ‘risk’ and ‘payoff’. Both approaches would help to model the astrobiology community to shed light on how it might better organise itself to access more significant payoffs.

Nicola Craigs

Durham University

Project Administrator

Contact details:

n.j.craigs@durham.ac.uk 

Steering Group . . . 

Prof Carol Cleland, University of Colorado Boulder

Prof Lee Cronin, University of Glasgow

Steven J Dick

Prof Tom McLeish, University of York

Dr Catriona Menzies, Durham University

Lynn J Rothschild, NASA Ames Research Center