Life on Mars, Astrobiology, and Thinking Differently about Risk
As the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover sets out on its seven month voyage to Mars in the hope of finding signs of life, it’s worth taking a…
As the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover sets out on its seven month voyage to Mars in the hope of finding signs of life, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the nature of risk in our search for extraterrestrial life.
I’m not an astrobiologist. But I do work in the twilight zone between amazing discoveries, new technologies, and the challenges of pursuing them responsibly.
For many years, I’ve focused on the challenges of developing complex new technologies such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering in ways that benefit society without causing undue harm. These, and many of the other areas I’m involved with, are driven by people trying to change the world for the better. But as we know from experience, sometimes even with the best intentions in the world, scientific curiosity and technological tinkering can lead to devastating consequences if they aren’t coupled with a broader understanding of societal impacts.
To me, astrobiology inhabits a similar twilight zone. From working and collaborating with astrobiologists, and those who have a stake in astrobiology, it seems that many of the benefits and tensions we face in the search for evidence of life beyond Earth echo those being faced in other areas of science and technology. Whether considering the powers of gene editing, the near-unimaginable potential of artificial intelligence, or the discovery of extraterrestrial life, we are facing future trajectories that are inherently uncertain, potentially transformative, and deeply impacted by what people think, feel, and believe is right and wrong.
“Just as technology innovation seeks to transform creative ideas into products that people want to buy, risk innovation seeks to transform creative ideas around how we think about risk into frameworks and processes that people want to use”
This puts us in challenging territory when it comes to trading the potential benefits of what we do against the potential risks. And this is where conventional thinking about risk runs out of steam fast.
Risk analysis typically relies on estimating the probability of adverse consequences through experimentation or modeling, and constraining actions to those with acceptably low probabilities of unwanted outcomes. But there’s more to risk than probabilities.
What type of harm we’re facing, the magnitude of that harm, and who stands to bear the brunt of it, all play a role in how we approach risk. It’s easy to make risk decisions when you’re not the one who has to suffer the consequences. But it’s a different matter entirely when you run the risk of losing something that’s dear to you. And often, what we cannot face losing is not easily quantifiable.
Take for instance the loss of opportunity (such as not being able to complete a space exploration mission successfully). Or the loss of hope (a loss that might result from catastrophic contamination of celestial bodies). Or even loss of agency (like being denied the ability to fully apply your expertise to a challenge like the search for life beyond Earth that you are passionate about).
Astrobiology is replete with such risks. These are not risks that respond well to conventional risk analysis. But there are a growing number of unconventional approaches that can help navigate them. And one of these is ‘‘risk innovation.’’
Just as technology innovation seeks to transform creative ideas into products that people want to buy, risk innovation seeks to transform creative ideas around how we think about risk into frameworks and processes that people want to use. It’s a way of thinking about risk that generates new knowledge, understanding, or capabilities and translates these into products, tools, or practices that protect what we consider to be of value.
Risk innovation captures conventional ideas of ‘‘value’’ such as human health, environmental integrity, and economic sustainability. But it also allows us to address less tangible aspects of value, such as scientific discovery and integrity. And it enables these to be integrated with what is important to citizens more broadly, including respect, dignity, hope, belief, justice, and security.
These are societal factors, not scientific ones. Yet in a field like astrobiology, they become increasingly important to future successes and failures. Here, the concept of risk innovation helps recognize and respond to the importance of what people value in determining how risks and benefits can be effectively weighed and acted on.
This recognition alone can help understand failure modes that are based more on how stakeholders and other constituencies feel and act than how technical systems behave. But it’s just one of a number of novel approaches to unconventional risks.
Another approach to addressing emerging risks is the risk framework developed by the International Risk Governance Council. This draws on conventional approaches to risk that are grounded in causative relationships and evidence-based mitigation strategies. But it builds into these a recognition that effective risk approaches to complex challenges require the broad engagement of multiple stakeholders — including members of the public.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of rigor is the precautionary principle. This is often misunderstood or misinterpreted, but it has an underlying philosophy that provides a useful way of approaching complex and uncertain risks in some cases.
One formulation of the precautionary principle for instance that is potentially useful in the context of astrobiology is that of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). This states that:
When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. (UNESCO, 2005)
The COMEST formulation goes on to clarify that judgment of plausibility should be grounded in scientific analysis, that actions should be chosen that are proportional to the seriousness of the potential harm, and that the choice of action should be the result of a participatory process.
Precautionary principle politics aside, these aspirations provide a sound philosophy for addressing complex, uncertain, and potentially catastrophic risks before it’s too late.
A third framework that is useful here is that of ‘‘responsible innovation.’’ While there are a growing number of interpretations of responsible innovation, a good place to start is Stilgoe, Owen, and Macnaghten’s description from 2013. Here, they propose approaching the development of new technologies — and by inference, new science — through four guiding principles:
Anticipation (insight into potential future scenarios, pathways, and outcomes);
Reflexivity (being self- reflective, and mindful that your perspectives may not be universally held);
Inclusion (engaging appropriately and constructively with stakeholders and key constituencies); and
Responsiveness (a capacity to change direction in response to stakeholder and public values and changing circumstances).
The IRGC framework, the precautionary principle, and responsible innovation all provide different approaches to applying the concepts that underlie risk innovation. What they have in common is that they recognize the importance of society in risk-decisions, and the dangers of not including people, together with their fears, irrationalities, aspirations, and needs, in any enterprise that potentially impacts them.
Such responsiveness to people, and society more generally, will be critical in the continuing search for extraterrestrial life, because the reality is that, if we ignore what is important to each community and organization that is touched in some way by astrobiology, this search is going to face a rocky and uncertain future.
In our scientific searches for life beyond Earth, it will be critical that we use innovative approaches to understanding and weighing risks and benefits, and to acknowledge that social awareness and understanding of what is important to different groups are likewise important. Because at the end of the day, we all want to reap the rewards of our search for extraterrestrial life, without being stymied by ill-informed actions or living with the consequences of ill-conceived ideas.
Based on an article first published in the journal Astrobiology in 2018.