April 17, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Astrobiology Ten Years Later: Can It Justify Its Funding?

Astrobiology just turned ten years old, but is experiencing growing pains, partly due to a starvation diet.  This “science without a subject” (as George Gaylord Simpson quipped about its predecessor, exobiology) is struggling to justify itself at the Congressional feeding trough.  Proponents tout it as the most important subject in the universe.  Why, then, is Congress cutting back its rations?
    Astrobiology was born virtually in a day.  When a NASA press conference in 1996 announced the possibility of fossil organisms in a Martian meteorite, the media fervor launched speculation into action.  President Clinton appointed Vice President Al Gore to hold a space conference to discuss its implications.  A preliminary astrobiology study group was formed at NASA-Ames Research Center, which became formalized as the NASA Astrobiology Institute in 1998 (see NAI Timeline).  Grants were awarded to 11 research centers for research into “the scientific study of life in the universe – its origin, evolution, distribution, and future” (see NAI).  As funding for this new science continued, astrobiology websites, magazines, TV programs, conferences and projects have kept this new field in the public awareness.  In a sense, this was a pragmatic move to ride a wave of public interest and centralize existing but disparate programs.  Nature1 said, “the field was cooked up, in part, out of political necessity, as a means of bundling together research programmes on exobiology, other life sciences and planetary science” (emphasis added in all quotes).
    Following a late 20th century trend for scientists to collaborate in cross-disciplinary endeavors, astrobiology became an umbrella term for chemists, biologists, astronomers and physicists interested in exploring possibilities of life beyond earth.  The fact that no life has been found yet is only incidental to the story.  To astrobiologists, the field encompasses stellar evolution, planet formation, the search for water on other worlds, chemical evolution, hydrothermal vents, extremophiles, life detection methods, detection of extrasolar planets, and much more – even the birth and eventual fate of the universe, subjects once the domain of philosophy and religion.  Though SETI was specifically excluded from government funding (it continues through private sources), any research program tied into astrobiology goals, even in a peripheral way, could apply for the grant money.
    This year, NASA threatened to cut the $65 million astrobiology budget in half.  In a nation overspent on hurricane relief and the war on terror, NASA director Michael Griffin faced hard choices.  Squeezed by the cost of the International Space Station, recovery of the Shuttle program after the Columbia disaster and the pressure for a new human launch vehicle (the CEV), he distributed much of the pain to the NASA science budget, with astrobiology low on the priority list.  The response was swift and strident.  Scientific institutions, academics, and even private space advocacy groups like the Planetary Society and the SETI Institute joined in condemning the reductions.  Tempers eased slightly when NASA restored half the projected cuts, but new astrobiology projects are likely to be unfunded.  Scientists are still irate and demanding their money back.
    Meanwhile, some of the findings discussed at the NASA Astrobiology Conference March 26-30 in Washington, DC were not all that encouraging.  The media had made a big deal about possible water on Enceladus last year.  The L word (life) was usually not far behind.  As reported by Richard A. Kerr in Science,2 however, the just-add-hot-water recipe may be unrealistic.  “George Cody warned that deep-sea hot springs couldn’t have produced all of the necessary components,” Kerr reported.  “Instead, the final assembly [sic; implies design] of molecules leading to life [sic; implies progress] must have happened somewhere between deep-sea vents, warm little ponds [an allusion to Darwin], and any number of other chemical stew pots.”  Cody found that, while some ingredients might be catalyzed by hydrothermal vents, the rest of the cooking had to happen elsewhere: “Worst of all, important sugars and nucleobases fall apart under hydrothermal conditions.”  Astrobiologists are trying a new approach: think globally, act locally –

Submarine hot springs no doubt could have played a role in brewing the primordial soup that gave rise to life [sic], Cody said, but other environments must have contributed too.  “If I said it all happened in hydrothermal vents, that won’t move this field ahead,” he says.  “Thinking more globally could open up something.”  Perhaps the real action came along continental margins, he said.  There, prebiotic compounds from deep-sea vents rose to meet drainage from the land’s warm little ponds and fallout from atmospheric reactions triggered by lightning and sunlight.  “This is a very good [sic] approach, quite novel,” says organic chemist Vera Kolb of the University of Wisconsin, Parkside.  “People get bogged down with the particular conditions they’re studying, but he wasn’t pushing his own work.”
    Such a “global origin” scenario, however, would make it less likely that life arose elsewhere in the solar system, Cody says.  The subsurface oceans on the icy moons Europa and Enceladus might not have offered the required diversity of environments.  And Mars may not have had even a short-lived ocean.

Since Europa and Enceladus were both recently advertised as targets for life detection, it may not be politically opportune at this time to mention such things to Congress.


1Editorial, “Astrobiology at Ten,” Nature 440, 582 (30 March 2006) | doi:10.1038/440582a.
2Richard A. Kerr, “ASTROBIOLOGY SCIENCE CONFERENCE 2006: Diversity Before Life,” Science, 14 April 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5771, p. 179; DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5771.179b.

There is nothing wrong with asking big questions.  What is life?  What are the requirements for life?  How can we detect life?  When asking big questions, it makes good sense to get input from a variety of disciplines.  Astrobiology, however, has big problems passing itself off as science that deserves public funding.
    For one, it assumes evolution before allowing the evidence to speak.  If there is water, there must be life.  If there are organic compounds, they must evolve into more complex ones.  While it may be true that a substantial number of stars have planets, and that some of those will fall within the temperature range where water can exist as a liquid, thinking that life will necessarily emerge has no scientific support.  (Claiming it evolved here is circular reasoning since the alternative is that it was designed.)  Asking big questions and taking a position without scientific support is tantamount to religion, and imposes a state-funded religious view on a public, the majority of which does not accept evolution.
    Another problem is that astro- has nothing to do with -biology.  Astrobiology is a made-up term, a chimera, a bizarre juxtaposition of concepts like decadent fudge or sexy V6 that is more marketing than substance.  Invent a racy term like “astrobiology,” and you instantly convey images about things of which we have no knowledge, and that may not exist.  Yet it gives artists fodder for portraying DNA molecules unwinding out of Hubble astrophotos.  One might retort that we have astrochemistry and astrophysics – but these are natural subjects for lifeless stars.  We have biochemistry and biophysics, but these are natural to Earth, the one place we know has life.  So far as we know, biology and astronomy have no necessary or demonstrable connection.  There are organic molecules in space, and there are planets, and there is probably water, but none of these conditions are sufficient for life.  Put a planet together with water and carbon, and you may get only dark mud.
    But, someone will object, how can we find out, unless we search?  OK, get in line.  Make a presentation, show your criteria, provide a budget and time limit, and make your case to Congress through elected representatives.  Perhaps you can sell the public on funding it for a little while, subject to other funding priorities.  But astrobiology has become an open-ended program that could never be exhausted, no matter how many targets are investigated.  If we don’t find it on Mars, let’s look on Europa, then Titan, then Enceladus, then other stars, and on and on forever.  Worse, astrobiology was launched on news of possible life in a Martian meteorite that, in retrospect, looks deeply flawed.  Some get the impression the announcement had ulterior motives.  Now that the search is on, though, what are the criteria for failure?  Would committed astrobiologists ever admit defeat?  If not, then it is religion, not science.
    The scientific elite want complete independence from political influence on their spending habits, and become irate when the president or Congress dictate scientific priorities.  They think they alone know what is good for science.  But just like all citizens, scientists need accountability.  As Steven L. Goldman (Lehigh U) said in a lecture series on 20th century science for The Teaching Company,

Science has definitively lost its innocence.  The claim that “we are generating value-neutral, objective knowledge” is hollow.  Scientists may continue to believe it, but from a social perspective, the pursuit of knowledge – even of abstract scientific knowledge – is firmly embedded in social institutions and social expectations.  Science has been delighted to take this public support (and especially the public funding) and the organization of public institutions to allow scientists to do research – take that money and support, because the public perceives that science is a source of technological blessing.  But the flip side is that when there are curses, science is going to have to suffer that as well.
(Lecture 36, excerpt)

Another problem with astrobiology is the implied expectation that the public should fund it.  Why?  What national interest is served?  The public has a right to expect that either national security, health, prosperity or international prestige will be enhanced by the expenditure of its tax dollars.  Unquestionably, astrobiology is driving some interesting technology, such as miniaturization of biological detectors.  Astrobiologists can tout any number of spin-off technologies from its projects, but these beg the question whether those same technologies would not have emerged from other programs, such as medical or military research, or even from private enterprise.  Not every interesting question has the expectation of public funding.  For better or worse, Congress in 1994 decided that a superconducting supercollider was not worth $10 billion just because some particle physicists were interested to find out if the Higgs boson exists (as required by current big bang models).  The existence of life is arguably a more entrancing question, but it does not follow that the public should pay to answer it.
    A rejoinder might be that such projects cost too much for anything but the government largesse.  (This forgets that government is of, by, and for the people.)  Why so?  The Mt. Wilson and Palomar telescopes were privately funded, and so is SETI (once Proxmire laughed it out of Congress; in fact, SETI has rather flourished under private sponsorship).  There are billionaires like Paul Allen, who just funded the Allen Telescope Array for the SETI Institute, and there are corporations, foundations and university alumni that can pitch in if scientists can sell them on the need for their particular astrobiology projects.  If this is not satisfactory, let them think creatively; sell Congress on a Mars or Europa mission for other priorities, and let private sources fund the astrobiology investigations as ride-alongs.  Or, build better life detectors for use on the battlefield, and adapt them for use in space.
    Did you know that federal funding for US science is a relatively recent phenomenon?  In the 19th century, the government steadfastly refused to pay a dime for the AAAS, the NSF, the Smithsonian and other science organizations – they had to solicit funds from donors.  In Britain, also, members of the Royal Society and Royal Institution both had to pay their own way via sponsorships and special public events.  France had its crown-funded Academy of Sciences, but the elite scientists were subject to the king’s bidding.  Only after World War II, largely through the efforts of Vannevar Bush convincing the federal government that it needed technology for national defense, did federal funding of basic research become the norm.  Still, each expenditure needs to be justified to the people who pay the bills.  How will astrobiology aid the poor family on the farm in Arkansas, or victims of the latest natural disaster?  How will it protect our freedoms?  Furthermore, as we have seen with the National Endowment for the Arts, FEMA, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, public funding does not always produce excellence.  Maybe private funding would stimulate higher standards for astrobiology.  These considerations undercut the alarms raised by scientists that funding cuts to astrobiology will necessarily reduce US scientific leadership in the world.
    Of course, it is demoralizing and counterproductive for government to cut back on already-approved programs.  Congress should keep its word.  Once a program starts, it involves careers and livelihoods and plans for potentially many people.  Finishing a job usually provides more knowledge than cancelling one program for something better.  That alone, however, does not justify an endless funding stream.  Each program needs to earn its wings every day.  The public has a right to know what they are getting for their dollars, even when, like with NASA science, the outlays are a small fraction of the federal budget.
    Justifications for research programs do not need to be merely pragmatic.  The Apollo program, for instance, was immensely rewarding for national prestige during the cold war, and contributed to world peace when Americans and Russians collaborated on Skylab.  Space exploration continues to uphold America’s image of scientific leadership in the world (e.g., Mars rovers, Cassini).  What, though, is astrobiology’s marketing line?  Finding the answer to big questions like the presence of life in space would be no doubt interesting for philosophy, but how does one justify public funds in addressing the question?  Think of great conceptual leaps that were made without government funding: relativity, the expansion of the universe, MRI – the list would be long.  Why should not astrobiology, like SETI, pay its own way?  Why does it have to cost tens of millions of dollars?  We have material from space sitting at our feet waiting to be examined – meteorites from Mars even – and plenty of environments on Earth where scientists could get assistance from universities, corporations and foundations.  Existing telescopes are well equipped for much of the needed research.  Scientists throughout history have been inventive and productive without “banging their crutches on the trough of public funding” (09/09/2005).
    Until and unless astronomy and biology get married, the folks at home don’t have to keep funding the wedding plans year after year – especially when they are not convinced the two were made for each other.

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