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.
Prof Peter Vickers
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
Dr Sean McMahon
University of Edinburgh
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
Dr Cyrille Jeancolas
Prof Carol Cleland, University of Colorado Boulder
Dr Christopher Cowie, Durham University
Prof Lee Cronin, University of Glasgow
Steven J Dick
Dr Catriona Menzies, Durham University
Lynn J Rothschild, NASA Ames Research Center