Communication of a Life Detection Result
A major component of the Community Report from the Biosignatures Standards of Evidence Workshop (henceforth Community Workshop Report) is a proposed assessment framework presented as a series of questions meant to reframe the search for life as a stepwise progressive venture of verification rather than a singular moment of discovery. Part of that reframing is meant to guide the science community in its research efforts and to detail the steps needed to verify a life detection claim. The second part is, as the committee understands, to encourage the adoption of a common language to foster better communications within the astrobiological community, with a substantial diversity in research methodologies, and between the science community and the scientific press and general public. The five questions and two levels of the proposed assessment framework are similar to existing confidence scales used to communicate potentially groundbreaking discoveries. This chapter will discuss this goal and the Community Workshop Report’s proposals here.
USE OF PROGRESSIVE SCALES WITHIN THE SCIENCE COMMUNITY
The concept of a confidence level scale is not new within the broader scientific community. Several of these are specifically intended to foster communications between various groups both within and outside the science community. For instance, the Torino scale first proposed in 1997 for categorizing Earth impact event threats and adopted in 1999 by the International Astronomical Union1 was intended by its originating paper to place “the hazard posed by any given close approach into an easily understandable context that allows simple and efficient communication between astronomers and the public.”2 The Torino scale facilitates this communication and is widely accepted and used today, an example of a scale being used to convey critical scientific information of deep public interest that could be sensationalized in the worst of cases.
Another example of such a scale meant to facilitate communication of a groundbreaking and history-making significance is the Rio scale, first proposed in 20003 and adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 2002.4 Similar to, and named in part to reference, the Torino scale, the Rio scale is perhaps more relevant to astrobiological studies in that its 10 levels describe the confidence of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. This too is meant to ensure the clarity of a public announcement of a discovery by providing a common language that frames a potential discovery with far-reaching consequences.
1 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Torino Impact Hazard Scale,” https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/sentry/torino_scale.html.
2 R.P. Binzel, 1997, “A Near-Earth Object Hazard Index,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 822(1):545-551, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1997.tb48366.x.
3 I. Almár and J. Tarter, 2011, “The Discovery of ETI as a High-Consequence, Low-Probability Event,” Acta Astronautica 68(3-4):358-361, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2009.07.007.
4 International Academy of Astronautics, “The Rio Scale,” https://iaaspace.org/wp-content/uploads/iaa/Scientific%20Activity/setirio.pdf.
A more recent example is the Confidence of Life Detection (CoLD) scale proposed5 in 2021. This scale is perhaps most relevant to the search for life, intelligent or otherwise, as addressed by the Community Workshop Report. This particular scale is modeled after NASA’s technological readiness scale6 in its approach to communicating a life detection claim. Though not widely adopted within the field as of yet, the originating paper for this CoLD scale calls for further discourse to amend the scale for broad applicability.
These three scales all share key aspects that are advantageous for facilitating communications on potentially historic discoveries. Each provides a common language that can be used both within the scientific community and to the general public, contextualizing scientifically complex and nuanced discoveries. Second, all of these are meant to be a dynamic analysis where discoveries are moved up and down the scale as research progresses and verification studies unfold. Third, they are broadly general within their respective fields and communicate only varying degrees of confidence in a particular discovery (or in the case of the Torino scale, danger) rather than methodology.
The committee recognizes that these qualities are present within the proposed assessment framework proposed by the Community Workshop Report. While additional discussions are necessary to further refine the framework, the development of such a framework is considered to be valuable and useful to the astrobiology community. However, the committee also recognizes that significant work will be needed to foster broad community acceptance of this framework (or any) scale.
As a counterpoint however, universal acceptance is not completely necessary for such an assessment framework to be useful. A commonly accepted language may be useful in fostering communications, but not everyone needs to be skilled at or even willing to use it. Additionally, in the interests of openness and inclusivity, this utilization should never be mandatory, directly or indirectly, as it may become a barrier to entry into the field as a form of gatekeeping.7,8 The lack of a universally accepted assessment framework should not constitute an unacceptable hindrance to the scientific process. Therefore, the committee considers universal acceptance of a common assessment framework as useful, but not critical for scientific endeavors to flourish.
Finding 2: The concept of an assessment framework is beneficial for establishing a common language for communicating between and among scientists and journalists, and for calibrating the significance and caveats of a potential life detection discovery. The framework presented in the workshop report, as well as the proposed Confidence of Life Detection Scale, and the existing Rio scale, all are useful for this purpose. The diversity of opinion from the broader community indicates that universal adoption of any one framework or scale would be challenging, however the committee found the five guiding questions clearly defined and valuable.
USE OF PROGRESSIVE SCALES IN COMMUNICATING WITH JOURNALISTS AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC
As stated before, progressive level scales are useful in facilitating communication between the scientific community and the press, especially for communicating complex and nuanced high-impact
5 J. Green, T. Hoehler, M. Neveu, S. Domagal-Goldman, D. Scalice, and M. Voytek, 2021, “Call for a Framework for Reporting Evidence for Life Beyond Earth,” Nature 598:575-579, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03804-9.
6 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2020, Technology Readiness Assessment Best Practices Guide, SP-20205003605, Washington, DC, https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/20205003605.
7 B.L. Montgomery, 2020, “Academic Leadership: Gatekeeping or Groundskeeping?” The Journal of Values-Based Leadership 13(2):16, http://dx.doi.org/10.22543/0733.132.1316.
8 E. Forsberg, L. Geschwind, S. Levander, and W. Wermke, 2022, Peer Review in an Era of Evaluation: Understanding the Practice of Gatekeeping in Academia, Springer Nature, p. 402, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-75263-7.
discoveries of interest to the general public. The Torino scale, in particular, serves a valuable role in contextualizing the risk of what could potentially be a catastrophically damaging impact event. Public interest in the potential for and the prevention of a space-borne disaster such as an asteroid impact is enormous, and yet, the press regularly uses the Torino scale to demonstrate that potential impactors seen initially to be risky are later deemed to be safe.9
An analogous framework for contextualizing life detection for the general public would be similarly useful, perhaps more so than fostering communications within the scientific field. In that regard, the assessment framework proposed by the Community Workshop Report would certainly be beneficial in conveying the complexity of verifying a life detection claim. However, the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences does believe further discussions and refinement are required before it can be fully utilized in this regard.
Astrobiological research is a years-long endeavor of painstakingly small but significant progress in research punctuated by occasional moments of quick advancements in measurement or understanding. Likewise, new discoveries stimulate further investigation that may lead to changes in the confidence of a detection in an iterative process. The framework as presented by the Community Workshop Report does not reflect the length of time between discoveries nor does it reflect the small gains that compose the majority of astrobiology research.
For instance, most biosignature claims will remain between Question 1, Have you detected an authentic signal? and Question 2, Have you adequately identified the signal?—both within Level 1 of the framework. Incremental progress between the two goes unreported and, to some degree if implemented widely, unrecognized. A life detection claim can remain stuck between these Questions, especially at the lower level, for years without any recognizable progress up (or down) the scale.
The five questions within the assessment framework can be useful to facilitate communication of a potential life discovery claim within the scientific community. This is acceptable for communications within the scientific community where realistic expectations of research progress can be encouraged if not outright assumed. It could have a detrimental effect when communicating with the general public, eager to hear about scientific progress. This problem is especially compounded by the level of public interest that a life detection claim could generate. Spending months if not years at the same level could create public fatigue about astrobiology claims that are still at the same early level, even when scientific progress has been made, perhaps detrimentally affecting public view of non-detection results. A more refined scale that accounts for more incremental scientific progress would be more effective for communicating with the public. The committee agrees with the need for efforts to refine this scale further to account for this issue.
Verification and Reporting a Possible Life Detection Result
As the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be profound, the scientific community and NASA would be prudent to approach the communication of any major or incremental discovery related to life detection with caution and care. In some cases, but not all, NASA may be involved in vetting the communication narrative with the media, for example, when discoveries are led by NASA scientists. This caution is laudable, especially given the level of trust that the general public has in NASA to assess and convey accurate information. However, this stance is reactive rather than proactive, which limits the ability of NASA to prepare for the various scenarios.
NASA has a “no embargo” policy regarding NASA-led communication of discoveries to the press, which the committee finds is largely responsible for this reactive posture. That is, NASA press releases are not first circulated to the media for a period of a few days in advance of public release, as is
9 J. Jaupi, 2022, “Stone’s Throw Asteriod with ‘Riskiest Trajectory in 10 Years’ Tracked to See If It’ll Hit Earth—and the Results Are in,” The U.S. Sun, February 28, https://www.the-sun.com/tech/4788214/asteroid-risk-trajectory-earth.
common with high-profile journal articles so as to allow time for dialogue with scientists. By its nature, this inhibits proactive engagement of NASA with journalists that could lead to improved communication that appropriately addresses the inevitable and critical nuances of such sensitive findings. This policy may also deter non-NASA scientists from engaging NASA to announce new findings in a collaborative approach.
The Community Workshop Report recommends a methodology to improve or control communication clarity by asking scientists to go through additional steps of internal community vetting before discoveries are published or announced. This makes an assumption that the “no embargo” policy is not problematic in the goal of clear communication related to life detection findings. Additionally, this makes an assumption that scientists and their press officers are properly prepared to engage with the media to report findings once vetted. The committee considers these two assumptions unsupported and/or unjustified.
The first assumption, that the NASA “no embargo” policy does not have an impact on clear communications, is unsupported. Potential modifications to that policy, at least in the specific regard of a life detection discovery, could result in a resolution that is less disruptive to the process of announcing or publishing a discovery while maintaining the openness of NASA’s communications and allowing a more proactive engagement by the science press.
The second assumption, that the scientific community and its affiliated press officers are properly prepared to engage with science journalists once results are verified, is similarly unsupported and, in this case, unjustified. With rare exceptions,10 researchers are not regularly trained in science communication, as the Community Workshop Report rightfully observes. Press officers are often not trained in science at a practitioner level and, from the committee’s understanding and information gathering, rely heavily on their discussions with scientists to ensure that scientific details are correct.
The assumption leads to an inference that the communication lines between two groups, (A) the general public-aimed science journalists and (B) scientists along with their affiliated press officers, are to some degree non-functional. The committee does not agree with this inference. The more problematic communication obstacle is between (A) scientists and (B) journalists and press offices in general, whether affiliated with science or aimed at the general public.
The committee does agree with the Community Workshop Report that addressing this particular communications gap requires resources and programs that train scientists to be better communicators and to avoid overstating their results. Additionally, active discussions with journalists by the scientific community (i.e., the media workshop on life detection technologies at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference) could improve communications between the two groups. This could ameliorate some of the unintentional harm that poor science communications may produce. However, the committee does not agree that addressing this issue requires vetting prior to communication with the media. A formal process of additional internal vetting (e.g., by committee as suggested by the Community Workshop Report) is antithetical to the established peer-review process. It is also likely to stifle innovation, especially from less-well-established scientists who have a higher likelihood of negative bias from peers. We discuss this latter point further in the next chapter.
Finding 3: The Community Workshop Report highlights the challenges of communicating nuance in life detection discoveries and their degree of consensus to the media and recommends a reporting protocol. The committee agrees that clear communication requires a collaborative approach between the scientific community and journalists and supports further efforts to engage
10 S. Diniega, R. Klima, C.B. Phillips, C. Richey, E. Turtle, S.D. Vance, J. Vertesi, and R. Pappalardo, 2019, “Learning Ways to Improve Collaboration and Communication Within a Distributed, Large Team—via the Europa Clipper Mission Social Science Journal Club,” EPSC Abstracts 13, EPSC-DPS2019-212-1, Geneva, Switzerland: EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2019, https://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EPSC-DPS2019/EPSC-DPS2019-212-1.pdf.
the many layers of media; however, the committee cautions against any specific verification or media reporting protocols which could inhibit open, peer-reviewed science.
The committee understands the desire for priority may lead scientists to prematurely announce or co-opt an unverified life detection claim. Likewise, the press may sensationalize a life detection claim. However, the committee believes that the proposed solution of additional vetting does not address these two issues: the desire for priority will continue regardless of these verification mechanisms and the press may sensationalize a life detection claim regardless of what scientists do to ensure a claim’s veracity.
What we can do is ensure that scientists doing research properly have the resources and opportunity to acquire training to communicate effectively with the press, both to prevent the unintentional harm of overstating results and to better refute false claims in the public arena. Alternative mechanisms to improve clarity in communication with the media might include addressing the impacts of NASA’s “no embargo” policy and also developing resources to support scientists, press offices, and the media at each step of the communication process. These alternative mechanisms will, by their nature, require additional discussion to ensure they address the specific issues identified by both the Community Workshop Report and this report. These discussions should specifically involve both the science community and science journalists.
This discussion of the ramifications of these proposed verification mechanisms continues in the next chapter.