A few words about “broader impacts” of science


Credit: marylovesjustice.blogspot.com

At the end of this April, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at a European Union-sponsored astrobiology conference, “From Star and Planet Formation to Early Life,” in Vilnius, Lithuania. The topic of my talk was “Astrobiology in culture: current NASA initiatives to broaden the dialogue.” I’m in the process of writing a paper based on this talk. Though it’s nowhere near finished, I’ve decided to publish a “preview” of the paper here.

If you’re wondering why, it’s because this week these initiatives – one of them, specifically – have received some criticism, and the criticism is not fully informed. See evolutionary biologist/blogger Jerry Coyne’s posts of June 6 and June 9, in which he accuses NASA of “giv[ing] a huge grant to the CTI to study the implications of extraterrestrial life for religion” and the U.S. government of “teaming up with the odious John Templeton Foundation, giving one million dollars of taxpayers’ money for a stupid and meaningless attempt to figure out what will happen if we find life on other planets…an unconscionable and ludicrous waste of money, but also a potential violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from advancing religion.”


First, let me remind my readers that my work is funded in part by the NASA astrobiology program. I am a social scientist, doing science communication research for the program. I also should note that I do not believe in god and am a practicing humanistic Unitarian Universalist. And finally I will add that no one asked me to write about this matter.

Next, let me say that I’m quite familiar with the origin and development of the project that Professor Coyne is so upset about. The grant to CTI was NOT for a study of the implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial life on religion – the project is intended to consider the implications of such a discovery on society, writ large. Yes, religions are a part of societies, but there is a difference. (Also, by the way, theology – the scholarly study of religion and religious thought – is not the same as religion.) Coyne is entitled to his opinion that this project is “stupid and meaningless.” I disagree. And I can say with assurance that the CTI project is NOT intended to “advance religion.” Good grief….

As to charges of illegality – Coyne apparently has sicced the litigious Freedom from Religion Foundation on NASA – I am not a lawyer or a legal scholar, so I will leave those matters to the lawyers. (Though FFRF says “freedom depends on free thinkers,” it appears that not all kinds of thinking are legally permissible, as far as the foundation is concerned.)

I also would mention that some years ago, the National Science Foundation began requiring applicants for funding to address the “broader impacts” of the research they planned to do – that is, the social/cultural impacts of their science. As a taxpayer, I think it’s a good idea.

Now, as promised, here’s my paper “preview,” detailing what I know about this matter.

Questions at the heart of astrobiology research today – Where did life come from? Where is it going? Does life exist beyond Earth? – are far older than the Space Age. In centuries B.C.E, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers considered these questions. Since then, natural philosophers, theologians, and, most lately, natural scientists have continued to ponder them, devoting considerable attention to how the discovery of extraterrestrial life might affect human civilizations. In the contemporary world, scientific and public interest in the origin and evolution of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life is widespread.

In 1960 NASA established an exobiology program to fund research into the origin and evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Today, NASA’s astrobiology program, which encompasses exobiology and evolutionary biology, addresses questions and issues that are multidisciplinary and require an interdisciplinary approach to answer. Astrobiology also touch on issues in the humanities and social sciences, which focus especially on the future of life – for example, the question of how the discovery of extraterrestrial life might affect human civilizations.

To date, efforts to address “societal implications” or “societal effects” of astrobiology and the discovery of extraterrestrial life have sparse, sporadic, and disconnected. They also have been largely Western-centric – I would even argue U.S.-centric. These efforts have been reinforcing the practice of cultural hegemony – the domination of a diverse culture or cultures by a ruling class – in this case, the domination of a myriad of wildly diverse global cultures by Western scientific, scientistic, culture, whose foundation is the Western scientific world view.*

One of the aims of current NASA-sponsored initiatives to broaden the discourse about social, cultural, ethical, theological considerations relating to astrobiology is to address how these considerations may manifest themselves in different cultures and according to different world views.

The current NASA Astrobiology Strategy, published in 2015, is the product of 30 lead authors, more than 50 additional authors (including myself), and more than 75 contributors. In preparing this strategy, NASA astrobiology officials and made an effort to involve as many members of the astrobiology community as possible, engaging hundreds of individuals through in-person and virtual workshops and online submissions. This strategy does not specifically identify goals, objectives, and questions relating to social, cultural, ethical, and theological issues arising in the study of the origins of life and the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, because the science community has embraced this endeavor as part of its ongoing work. That said, among five “very broad goals” identified in this strategy is to “enhance societal interest and relevance. Astrobiology recognizes a broad societal interest in its endeavors, especially in areas such as achieving a deeper understanding of life, searching for extraterrestrial biospheres, assessing the societal implications of discovering other examples of life, and envisioning the future of life on Earth and in space” (pp. xv-xvi).

In an appendix to the strategy entitled “Beyond natural sciences: humanities and social science contributions to astrobiology,” Lucas Mix – a participant in the 2015-2016 Center of Theological Inquiry astrobiology project – and Connie Bertka – former director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion – observe, “The results of astrobiology research will have broad societal impact, affecting the way we think about life in the context of ethics, law, philosophy, theology, and a host of other issues. Our place in the universe, as a species and as a planet, speaks to our fundamental understanding of ourselves. There was not space in this format to comprehensively address the breadth of research possible or currently available on these topics” (p. 155). Instead, they “comment briefly on the range of humanities and social sciences that contribute to the central goals of astrobiology.” Among the topics they raise are:

  • “The role of epistemology in astrobiology. What are the comparative standards of evidence in astrobiology-related fields? Is a definition of life necessary to the pursuit of astrobiology” (p. 156)?
  • “What is the role for social science in astrobiology? Who is doing astrobiology and what professional and personal motivations encourage their work? What is the range of interest in and attitudes toward astrobiology” (ibid.)?

“Encouragement of independent work in the humanities and social sciences on these topics will aid astrobiology immensely,” they note (p. 160).

(Both Mix and Bertka hold graduate degrees in natural science and in theology – I know them both and think highly of them and their work.)

NASA astrobiology is contributing funding for three major initiatives that examine astrobiology in culture: the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology; the Center of Theological Inquiry’s (CTI’s) 2015-2017 study-in-residence project , “Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology”; and the 2015-2016 NASA Astrobiology Debates project.

The Blumberg Chair – a project conceived by Nobel Laureate Blumberg, who was the first director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute – was created to support scholars interested in the intersection of the sciences and humanities. The Chair creates an opportunity to study the range and complexity of issues related to how life begins and evolves and to examine the philosophical, religious, ethical, legal, cultural and other concerns arising from scientific research on the origin, evolution and nature of life. The first two Chairs were appointed for 2012-13 and 2013-14. The inaugural Chair, planetary scientist David Grinspoon (2012-2013), focused his research on the role of astrobiology in the Anthropocene. His book, Earth in Human Hands: The Rise of Terra Sapiens and Hope for Our Planet, is due to be published in December 2016. During his tenure as Chair, Grinspoon established a dialogue with House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), which led to a series of three committee hearings on astrobiology. The 2013-2014 Chair, science historian Steven Dick, focused his research on how cultures might prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. He was invited to give testimony on astrobiology to the House Science Committee. A product of Dick’s tenure was an edited volume, The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth (I contributed a chapter to this book, “The allure of alien life”).

For 2014-15, instead of appointing a Chair, NASA and the Kluge Center sponsored a series of interdisciplinary dialogues on astrobiology:

  • “Astrobiology and the Religious Imagination: Reexamining Notions of Creation, Humanity, Selfhood, and the Cosmos.”
  • “Rethinking Life on Earth and Beyond: Astrobiology and the Role of Paradigm Shifts in Science and Human Self-Understanding.”
  • “Stories About Life in the Cosmos: Historical, Cultural, and Artistic Perspectives on Astrobiology.”
  • Researchers who participated in these dialogues, led by philosophy professor Derek Malone-France of George Washington University and astrobiologist John Baross of the University of Washington, ranged from natural scientists to scholars of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism to STS (science, technology, and society) researchers, philosophers, historians, and ethicists and professors of English, theater, and rhetoric. Each of the closed dialogues was followed by a public program, which was webcast and archived on the Internet. (Pardon the bullet weirdness, the edit function is not letting me delete them.)

(I attended all of the dialogues and public programs. I observed during the first dialogue, “Astrobiology and the Religious Imagination,” that the natural scientists who were participating were all optimistic about the human future, on Earth and in space, while the humanistic scholars were all pessimistic. This difference in perspective was also noticeable in the next two dialogues, with social scientists tending to be more pessimistic as well.)

The Blumberg Chair for 2015-16 is Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of recent science, biology and biomedicine at Johns Hopkins University. As Blumberg Chair, Comfort is using the Library’s collections to examine the history of the genomic revolution in origin-of-life research, addressing a central area of inquiry in astrobiology today, which is how life began and evolved on Earth. Comfort’s first public program at the Kluge Center, held March 17, 2016, addressed the origins of the RNA-world hypothesis. Comfort interviewed Walter Gilbert, W. Ford Doolittle, George Fox and Ray Gesteland about their contributions to the development of this hypothesis. (I attended – it was fascinating.)

NASA astrobiology is also supporting an inquiry into the societal implications of astrobiology, being conducted by the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years. CTI is an independent academic institution for interdisciplinary research on global concerns with an international visiting scholar program.

Questions guiding this inquiry, which involves 12 scholars for this year, are:

  • If there are many different forms of life, known and unknown to us, what does it mean to be “alive”?
  • How would art and literature depict life as we know it against this background of other possibilities?
  • To what extent do our moral relations depend on the biology we share with other persons and other life?
  • With all these unanswered questions about life in the universe, how do we organize ourselves to investigate the possibilities?

CTI has obtained a separate grant from the Templeton Foundation for an outreach program to share the results of this inquiry with the broader scholarly community and public audiences. (Just to be clear, the NASA and Templeton grants are separate.)

The 2015-16 NASA Astrobiology Debates nasadebates.org is a year-long academic project for university and secondary education students involving in-person and online debate tournaments, speech competitions, public exhibition debates, topic-expert panels for student audiences, and student-conducted topic interviews with a cross-disciplinary group of subject matter experts. The aim of the debates project is to stimulate student, teacher, and school research and dialogue on astrobiology in preparing for these events and at the events themselves. The project is engaging universities, subject matter experts, and elite college debaters to help develop content for an instructional website for secondary-school students who are participating in the debates.

The initial goal of this project was to engage over 500 students in debate competitions.  By spring 2016 the project’s managers estimated that they would be involving over 2000 students during the 2015-16 academic year. A regional university debate competition held at The George Washington University on March 5-6, 2016, attracted debaters from across the United States as well as Japan and France. Some of the debate competitions have been live-streamed for parents, students, and other interested people who could not attend the events in person.  Video records of these events will be posted to the NASA Astrobiology Debates website to promote engagement with the NASA Astrobiology Debates topic and promote participate in debate competitions to schools that do not currently have debate programs.

The earliest record I have found thus far of a NASA activity that pulled together a multidisciplinary group of scholars to address “the social, philosophic, and humanistic impact” of the discovery of extraterrestrial life is a report entitled, “Life Beyond Earth and the Mind of Man” (Berendzen, 1973). This report is a transcript of a NASA-sponsored symposium held at Boston University on November 20, 1972. The symposium was convened to address the question: “”How might human beings react to the discovery of life beyond Earth?” Discussion focused on the possible discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life:

“In considering the possible existence of extraterrestrial life, we have become accustomed to thinking of it chiefly in the context of our solar system. Yet in recent years information has accumulated that suggests, by some estimates of probability, that forms of life could be broadly distributed throughout the galaxy. It is within the realms of possibility, in fact, likely that technically advanced civilizations may exist on the planets of distant stars. Communications with such far-off islands of intelligence may someday be begun, with effects on man’s home planet that can now be only imperfectly imagined.” (v)

Symposium participants were anthropologist Ashley Montagu; physicist and “SETI pioneer” Philip Morrison; planetary scientist and SETI advocate Carl Sagan; theologian Krister Stendahl, then Dean of the Harvard School of Divinity; and biologist George Wald (Nobel laureate, 1967). Symposium moderator Richard Berendzen, then a professor of astronomy at Boston University, noted, “Although there have been a handful of scientific meetings on this topic, to the best of my knowledge this is the first time there has ever been a meeting where a distinguished panel from diverse fields will discuss the topic in an open forum.” Some excerpts of the discussion follow:

  • Wald: “A lot of us do not quite see how to get beyond the next thirty years. Do you get much farther? Are there advanced civilizations in outer space? Not that they have not existed, and I rather think they do exist, but how much farther do they get? Do they all produce hydrogen bombs and engage in cold wars and stockpile enough stuff to wipe out all life on the surfaces of those planets? Can we keep the show on the road much longer?” (19)
  • Montagu: “We should do all in our power to prepare ourselves for [contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life]. The manner in which we first meet may determine the character of all our subsequent relations. Let us never forget the fatal impact we have had upon innumerable peoples on this Earth—peoples of our own species…whom we destroyed by our thoughtlessness and insensitivity to their needs and vulnerabilities… before we can communicate with others successfully, we must first learn to communicate with ourselves successfully, and we are a long way from having achieved that.” (25)
  • Stendhal: “When I think as a theologian on the possibilities of life beyond Earth and even communication with such life, my first reaction is, “That’s great!” It seems always great, to me, when God’s world gets a little bigger and when I get a somewhat more true view of my place and my smallness in that universe.” (29)
  • Morrison: “Perhaps the most valuable part of this extraordinary enterprise is going to be the mirror with which we confront ourselves obliquely, and in other ways, as we try to ask the question of what the future will be like, of how we are going to get over ourselves to reach that future….” (35)
  • Sagan: “The question becomes a kind of psychological projective test. People see in this issue of is-there-life-out-there-and-what-should-we-do-about-it the reflection of their own hopes and fears and even unspoken, unconscious processes. “ (55)

To wrap up, as a scholar, taxpayer, and humanist, I am glad that government agencies sponsoring scientific research are willing and able to acknowledge that science does not function in a cultural vacuum. The majority of citizens, who are not scientists, have a right to know what government-funded science means, and does, for them.

* I’m sure the reductionists will howl over this statement. That said, I welcome civilized comments on my posts – ad feminem attacks, dismissals of social science, etc., will not pass muster.