This post is about a new Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant led by Peter Vickers at Durham, which I am participating in as a co-investigator. Job adverts for a three-year funded PhD student and two-year funded postdoc to follow!
Astrobiology blends planetary science, astronomy, and biology, and shares their methods. But compared to scientists working primarily in these older and more established fields, astrobiologists face much greater uncertainty about core questions (as I have observed before on this blog). Over the decades (and indeed centuries), unexpected discoveries have forced a series of radical reassessments of the probability of life in our solar system and beyond. Such surprises might up-end the field again in the near future. Almost all science is — and should be — provisional and tentative to some degree. But in astrobiology this tentativeness is highly pronounced; we rely heavily on modelling different scenarios while we wait for the data to come in (or, more proactively, design and build the missions that will collect the data we need). This tentativeness is reflected in some of the field’s central concepts, such as “habitability”(which describes whether an environment could support life, not whether it does). The concept of a “biosignature” is similarly abstract; it is not simply something produced by life but something that could not be produced by non-life. 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 the fragment of Martian meteorite known as ALH84001. Today, astrobiologists are divided on the extent to which ‘life’ should count as a reasonable explanation of extraterrestrial phenomena for which no abiotic account currently exists (most recently, the apparent observation of phosphine on Venus).
Against this background, I have been working with the philosopher of science Peter Vickers at Durham (UK) to design a research programme that will critically interrogate both the conceptual foundations of astrobiology and its approach to uncertainty, including the appropriate handling of ‘risk’ and ‘reward’ when it comes to the design and funding of astrobiological missions and research. We have just won a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (PI Vickers, co-I McMahon) for this project, which we call EURiCA (Exploring Uncertainty and Risk in Contemporary Astrobiology). This project will combine 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. We will offer a strategy for balancing risks and rewards in projects/missions, particularly in biosignature research, not only benefiting astrobiology, but also illuminating neglected questions in the philosophy of science.
Other co-Is on the project are (astronomer) Martin Ward and (geologist) Chris Greenwell at Durham, and we also have a highly distinguished international steering committee comprising (historian) Steve J Dick, (astrobiologist) Lynn Rothschild, (philosopher) Carol Cleland, (physicist) Tom McLeish, (geologist) Catriona Menzies, and (chemist) Lee Cronin. We hope that our project will significantly strengthen the foundations of astrobiology and facilitate its progress. I’m especially looking forward to working with philosophers to clarify and refine, or perhaps replace, the concept of a “biosignature”. Peter will soon be recruiting a postdoc and PhD student (with my co-supervision) to join the team at Durham, so watch this space for the job adverts!