January 7, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Astrobiology: Follow the Money

To date, astrobiology remains, as George Gaylord Simpson once quipped, “an area of study without a known subject.” Yet it is one of the hottest research areas within NASA. A renowned origin-of-life researcher from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Dr. Jeffrey Bada, found out why when he read the new book The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick (Rutgers, 2004).  His book review appears in Science:1

Today, it seems nearly everyone is an astrobiologist. A decade ago, I knew essentially none. Why this sudden obsession with a field that encompasses so many diverse areas in both the physical and life sciences? So far, life has not been found to exist away from Earth, although the surge in interest in astrobiology suggests there is intense optimism within at least parts of the science community that this singularity will change in the future. But scientific curiosity alone likely cannot explain the explosive growth of astrobiology. After reading The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, I came to the conclusion that one of the field’s attractions was money—and lots of it. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Following the money trail, Bada found that exobiology (astrobiology’s “older relative”) got over $5 million in funding from NASA, leading up to the 1976 Viking missions. After they failed to detect life on Mars, exobiology funding dwindled, but in the mid-1990s, “NASA administrators Wesley Huntress and Daniel Goldin envisioned astrobiology as a means of integrating biological sciences into the space exploration program while also revitalizing places such as ARC [Ames Research Center] and providing a solid funding base for academic research.” In 1995, the NASA Astrobiology Institute was inaugurated.  ortuitously, the next year, the Martian Meteorite ALH84001 hit the newspapers with “supposed evidence for life.” Bada says, “Among scientists and the general public alike, this claim generated intense interest in—as well as controversy about—the possibilities of life beyond Earth. All of a sudden, astrobiology was the hottest topic around.”

And where there is interest, there is money. “The scientific community raced to get a piece of the action, and today the Institute comprises 16 funded nodes with five-year budgets of between about $5 million and $12 million.” Today, there are astrobiology journals, astrobiology conferences, and astrobiology international meetings. They may not have found evidence for life out there, but astrobiology has become “a field with a life of its own,” he quips. “The field has indeed exploded.” It is a huge public-relations boon not only for NASA, but for the European Space Agency (ESA). To be sure, NASA did not invent exobiology or astrobiology – speculations about life in outer space go back eons – but the terms became NASA funding buzzwords and mission drivers. The assumption is that the public will be more jazzed over finding something that crawls instead of hearing about more craters, rock, ice, and dust.

The Huygens Probe is now a week away from landing on Titan. No scientist expects to find life at nearly 300° below zero, but astrobiologists have capitalized on their fad by portraying Titan as “the early Earth in a deep freeze.” They tantalize school children with hopes that complex “prebiotic” carbon compounds might be found on the surface, that could be “the building blocks of life.” When the Mars rovers found hints of past liquid water (see 01/05/2005 headline), it buoyed astrobiologists’ hopes that evidence for past life might be found in a future mission, such as the Mars Science Laboratory or Mars Sample Return. If Mars proves lifeless, the last hope in our solar system will be Europa, where an ocean of liquid water may persist under the miles-deep ice crust. “Astrobiology has a big stake in these efforts,” Bada warns. “Finding evidence for life on another body in our solar system would give the field the justification it requires in order to remain an active, well-funded area of research.”

1Jeffrey L. Bada, “A Field with a Life of Its Own,” Science, Science, Vol 307, Issue 5706, 46, 7 January 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1106678].

For astrobiology not to be viewed by historians as a giant boondoggle, its adherents had better find something soon. But even if they don’t find it on Mars or Europa, their search extends to the stars, where they can speculate endlessly. Missions like Kepler, the Space Interferometry Mission and Terrestrial Planet Finder are motivated largely by the search for life’s origins (which being interpreted, always means a naturalistic origin by chemical evolution; see 06/23/2003 headline). Similarly, SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, thrives on the premise that life evolves wherever the conditions are favorable. It, too, is “an area of study without a known subject.”

It is worthwhile to ask big questions and seek answers. Rather than keeping philosophers wandering blindly in speculation space, astrobiology may provide needed constraints on what is possible. It would be better to know for sure whether all the bodies in our solar system beyond Earth are sterile or not. The search for extrasolar planets has already helped corral speculation about the nature and possible origins of planetary systems. The problem is that visions of money and fame can create self-perpetuating myths that enrich individuals and dupe the public.

Some conspiracy theorists have claimed recently that cell phone companies are hiding evidence that long-term use of cell phones contributes to brain cancer, knowing that by the time instances of cancer start to rise, the companies will have made a lot of money and the managers will be retired. Whether or not that is true is someone else’s research project. But consider the case of Sidney Fox. He got $1.7 million dollars from NASA for exobiology projects between 1959 and 1964, and became famous for his “protenoid microspheres” that he claimed showed how proteins could self-organize into bodies that resembled primitive cells. But now, Bada claims in this book review that “the impact of his research today is generally considered minimal.” Those microspheres were cooked up under conditions very implausible for the early Earth, and no more resembled cells than a bronze expressionist hunk of metal resembles a living Michael Moore. (On second thought….)

In short, Sidney Fox got rich and famous, on taxpayer money, for a sham. He got to play around in an all-expense-paid laboratory, look like he was busy, generate nonsense, and retire, by racing to get “a piece of the action” when exobiology was a fad. What other “useful lies” like the Stanley Miller experiment (see 05/02/2003 headline) become funding bandwagons? Along that line, someone should try to connect the dots between the founding of the Astrobiology Institute and the announcement of ALH84001 the next year. Dan Goldin, how about some hard questions?

The only way to get control of the propensity for NASA to waste money on false hopes is to fund debate. Why should Astrobiology funds go to only one party, the Darwin Party? (They’re mostly liberal Democrats anyway–see 12/02/2004 headline). NASA administrators are rightly concerned about maintaining public interest, because jobs and careers for many decent Americans are at stake, and legitimate science and technological spinoffs depend on a strong national program of basic research.

We have a suggestion. Instead of cartoons, give the public professional wrestling. Most of the public believes in creation, not evolution, so giving the public a steady stream of Charlie cartoons goes against the grain and is borrrrringggggg. Let’s have NASA distribute Astrobiology funds to both parties, Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Missions to collect data from Mars, Europa and Titan can continue. Kepler, SIM, and TPF can proceed, and efforts to gather better data and constrain models will be valued. But competition will simultaneously generate public interest while providing checks and balances against wild speculation. Both sides will be motivated to falsify the other’s claims. The best science will survive the battle. (Whassamatta, Charlie…. chicken?) The public, and the truth, will win in the end. Write in with your comments on this proposal.


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