Scientists’ Understanding of Ethics and Responsibility in Astrobiology: An Empirical Study
With the recent launch of multiple robotic missions to Mars and developing plans for human exploration of the Red Planet, the search for life in our solar system is at a crucial juncture. Astrobiology research could answer profound scientific and philosophical questions, but might also pose serious risks to science, society and extraterrestrial life via the harmful contamination of Earth and other celestial bodies. Because achieving zero risk of contamination and perfect protection for interplanetary missions is impossible, as long as exploration continues, decisions will have to be made on what constitutes an acceptable level of risk. How might scientific and bioethical priorities be balanced against engineering and funding limitations? Who will make these decisions? As the designers and practitioners of astrobiology research, astrobiologists will be key stakeholders—and potentially decisionmakers—in the search for life beyond Earth. Therefore elucidating the priorities, values, and assumptions that shape astrobiologists’ stances on ethical interactions with extraterrestrial life and environments is valuable not only as a case study in the responsibility of scientists, but as a starting point to increase understanding between stakeholder communities. Furthermore, policies and guidelines governing human interactions with life and environments beyond Earth will be implicitly if not explicitly shaped by scientists’ ethical frameworks and sense of responsibility, especially considering patterns of bottom-up agenda-setting and decision-making in the astrobiology field. This exploratory study therefore answers the question: What responsibilities and ethical commitments do astrobiologists recognize and prioritize as they search for life in our solar system? This was examined through semi-structured interviews with twenty-one US-based scientists whose research applies to the search for life beyond Earth. Responses were analyzed using thematic, inductive coding and exploratory text analysis. Results showed that participants privileged the risk of forward contamination over back contamination; were committed to protecting and preserving extraterrestrial life (including microbial life) and environments; and perceived of their responsibility primarily as a commitment to advance and protect science itself and to make science more inclusive and accessible to non-scientists via public outreach, rather than as a responsibility for the potential biological or sociocultural impacts of discovery. Participants’ views on ethics and on responsibility to science, to extraterrestrial ecosystems and to society were heavily informed by their personal concerns beyond the context of astrobiology as shaped by broader social and cultural context, especially: the present challenges of climate change and environmental degradation on Earth; the history of colonial exploration and exploitation; a growing lack of trust in science and expertise; and a scientist’s disciplinary background and work experiences. Boundary-making and division of labor between ‘scientific’ and ‘non-scientific’ social and ethical issues, in addition to the enormous uncertainties inherent to astrobiology research, also shaped astrobiologists’ views on the ethics of interacting with extraterrestrial life and environments and on their social responsibilities. On the basis of my findings, I conclude that astrobiologists would require training and institutional support in order to take greater responsibility for social and ethical issues, including replicating the experiences of Earth analogue field researchers and healing the science-society relationship. I also recommend that the basis of planetary protection should be updated to include the value and preservation of extraterrestrial life and environments, and that ethical guidelines and their consequent practical courses of action for discovery and interaction with extraterrestrial ecosystems be developed as soon as possible in consultation with all stakeholder communities.
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