Thursday, June 04, 2015

Space Agencies Need, but Don't Appear to Have, Policies Governing Contact with Microbial Life on Mars

NASA and other leading space agencies do not appear to have formal policies about how to treat microbial life if it's found elsewhere in the solar system. I find this surprising.

I still need to do a more thorough search to be confident of this. However, last week when I went to an event jointly sponsored by NASA and the Library of Congress, the people I spoke to there seemed to think that there's no worked-out formal policy; nor have I found such a policy in subsequent internet searches. (Please correct me by email or in the comments below if I'm wrong!)

NASA and other space agencies do have rigorous and detailed protocols regarding the cross-contamination of microbial life between planets. If you want to send a lander to Mars, it must be thoroughly sterilized. Likewise, extensive protocols are being developed to protect Earth from possible extra-terrestrial microbes in returned samples. NASA has an Office of Planetary Protection that focuses on these issues. However contact with microbial life raises ethical issues besides cross-contamination.

Suppose NASA discovers a patch of microbes on Mars.

Presumably, NASA scientists will want to test it -- to see how similar Martian life is to Earthly life, for example. Testing it might involve touching it. Maybe NASA scientists will want a rover to scoop up a sample for chemical analysis. But that would mean interfering with the organisms, exposing them to risk. Even just shining light on microbes to examine them more closely is a form of interference that presents some risk -- even the shadow of a parked rover creates a small degree of interference and risk. How much interference with extraterrestrial microbial life is acceptable? How much risk? These questions will rise acutely as soon as we discover extraterrestrial life. In fact, proving that we have actually discovered life might already involve some interference, especially if the sample is ambiguous or subsurface. These questions are quite independent of existing regulations about sterilization and contamination. We need to consider them now, in advance, before we discover life. Otherwise, NASA leaders might be in the position of making these decisions on the fly, without sufficient public input or oversight.

Here's another question in the ethics of contact: Suppose we discover a species of microbe that appears to be under threat of extinction due to local environmental conditions. Should we employ something like a "Prime Directive" policy, on the microbial level: no interference, even if that means extinction? Or should we take positive steps toward alien species protection?

Planetary protection policies that focus on contamination risk seem to rely on standard top-down regulatory models requiring compliance to a fixed set of detailed rules, but I wonder if a better model might be university Institutional Review Boards for the protection of human participants (IRBs) and Animal Care and Use Committees (ACUCs). Such committees have three appealing features:

First, rather than a rigid set of rules, IRBs and ACUCs employ a flexible set of general guidelines. The guidelines governing research on human participants tend to be very conservative about risk in general; but the committee is also charged with weighing risks against benefits. In the context of extraterrestrial microbiology, a reasonable standard might be extreme caution about interference, but one that allows, for example, a small sample to be very carefully taken from a large, healthy microbial colony, for experimentation and then careful disposal without re-release into the planetary environment. As reflection on this example suggests, people might have very different ethical opinions about how much risk and interference is appropriate, and of what sort. Also, expert scientists will want to think in advance about assessing the sources of risk and what feasible steps can be taken to minimize those risks, contingent on various types of possible preliminary information about the microbe's structure and habitat. I do not see evidence that these issues are being given the serious thought, with public input, that they need to be given.

Second, IRBs and ACUCs are normally constituted by a mix of scientist and non-scientist members, the latter typically drawn from the general public (often lawyers and schoolteachers). The scientists bring their scientific expertise which is essential to evaluating the risks and possible benefits, but the non-scientist members play an important role in expressing general community values and in keeping the scientists from possibly going too easy on their scientist friends, as well as sometimes specific expertise on related non-scientific issues. In the context of the treatment of extraterrestrial microbial life, a mixed committee also seems important. It shouldn't only be the folks at the space agencies who are making these calls.

Third, IRBs and ACUCs assess specific protocols in advance of the implementation of those protocols. This should be done where feasible, while also recognizing that some decisions may need to be made urgently without pre-approval when unexpected events occur.

I think we should begin to establish moderately specific national and international guidelines governing human interaction with microbial life elsewhere in the solar system, in which contamination is regarded as only one issue among several; that we should formulate these guidelines after broad input not only from scientists but also from the general public and from people with expertise in risk and research ethics; and that we should form committees, modeled on IRBs and ACUCs, of people who understand these guidelines and stand ready to evaluate proposals at the very moment we discover extraterrestrial life.

NASA, ESA, etc., what do you think?

[image source]


clasqm said...

Ethically, how do we treat microbial life here on Earth? We generally leave it alone unless it is life-threatening, or even mildly bothersome. Then we hit it with the heaviest, most toxic drugs we can lay our hands on.

You propose extending rights to alien microbes that we do not extend to the common staphylococcus, Escherichia coli or the human immunodeficiency virus. So before you start setting up a bureaucracy, how about telling us what your argument is.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Michel: You might be right that similar guidelines should apply to Earth and Mars, but I also see a possible case for stricter guidelines. The case might be grounded in one of three ways: (1.) There is already a certain amount of cross-influence among Earthly systems, and putting two different planetary systems into contact when they weren't before is qualitatively different in some important way. (2.) Given our greater ignorance about extraterrestrial life and the possibility that it is even more different from familiar examples of Earthly life than are even Earthly extremophiles, there are more unknown risks in contact. (3.) Life on a different planet might have a different potential than do extremophiles on Earth, if it has the potential eventually to develop into a large and diverse ecosystem very different from the ecosystem on Earth.

In any case, I think this is a discussion that should be out in the air, in public, with a higher profile than it currently has, and in advance of actual contact.

David Duffy said...

Richard Greenberg and B. Randall Tufts (2001) Macroscope: Infecting Other Worlds
American Scientist 89(4): 296-299. They mainly discuss "forward" contamination of Mars or Europa by earthly organisms, but in a general ethical context versus the baseline probability of such damage via natural means (meteorites).

clasqm said...

Well, (1) and (2) are essentially the same argument, and they both contradict your statement "These questions are quite independent of existing regulations about sterilization and contamination." It is a matter of how these organisms might affect US. Fair enough, but that is a pragmatic argument. I have a soft spot for pragmatism, but it has its defects as an ethical system. Given effective sterilization procedures, we do not need to worry about these little beasties coming to eat us. You are saying that we should not go there and eat them. Not the same thing at all.

(3) is more interesting. Yes, the alien microbes might one day evolve into a large and diverse ecosystem. Or not. Is that the end goal of all life, then? To spread and diversify, perhaps even (whisper it) to develop intelligence? What is wrong with just staying single-celled until your sun blows up? If you are going to go all teleological on us, at least be honest about it.

Besides, let's suppose we arrive on a planet and we determine that the conditions there are such that these microbes will NEVER evolve into anything more. The star is cooling, or heating up, and in a million years these microbes will all be dead anyway. Now what? You have only assigned them instrumental value to the extent that they may, perhaps, possibly give rise to something WE happen to find more interesting. You have not made the case that these microbes have an intrinsic worth that entitles them to ethical treatment. You have not, for example, given us a reason to launch a resettlement program for endangered microbes.

But if you do come up with one, then can you give any good reason why the last frozen vial of smallpox virus rumoured to be kept by the CDC in Atlanta should not be thawed and released into the wild? The wild being its natural habitat, namely the human body. It is not the virus's fault that it tends to disfigure and kill its habitat. Besides, who knows if the smallpox virus, given half a billion years, might not evolve into a diverse ecosystem? I think you really should volunteer as the first host, to give it a good start.

In any case, even if the alien microbes do diverge and spread and turn into the local equivalent of dinosaurs, this is not likely to happen for the next half-billion years or so - a span of time that humans can write down but not really comprehend. Can you see a politician explaining to his voters that yes, we have found this great piece of real estate, but the Schwitzgebel Doctrine forbids us to move in because we would disturb some bacteria that may or may not ever decide to go multi-cellular? Your institute would be de-funded very quickly. ;-)

We are incapable of saving the Northern White Rhino. We are incapable of saving other human beings who happen to be of a different religion and/or colour. If you are going to expect us to attach value to alien microbes, well, I predict they will be left alone until oil/uranium/ gold is discovered on Mars. After that, they will be food.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, folks!

Michel: I agree that "quite independent of contamination" was probably too strong a way to put my point in the original post. Maybe a better way to say it would have been something like "raise issues that go well beyond issues of contamination". Contamination is only part of the picture, I think. I do see (1) and (2) as different, since (2) emphasizes epistemic issues and (1) emphasizes the fact of existing interaction. They're connected but not identical.

You write: "Yes, the alien microbes might one day evolve into a large and diverse ecosystem. Or not. Is that the end goal of all life, then? To spread and diversify, perhaps even (whisper it) to develop intelligence? What is wrong with just staying single-celled until your sun blows up? If you are going to go all teleological on us, at least be honest about it."

I'm working on those very issues for a follow-up post sometime later this month.

I am inclined to be very conservative about interfering with life on other planets, and to think that we should have regulations and/or a diversely-composed committee overseeing it, but the remainder of what you say in your comment seems to caricature my view, so I find it difficult to engage for that reason.

clasqm said...

Well, I apologise if my light-hearted tone offends you. I was trying to point out that the way you have introduced this issue is not as an abstract philosophical discussion of the ethical value of alien microbes. You issued a call to action. Getting humans to act ethically is quite a different proposition from discussing how they should be acting.

Within that context, the fine philosophical differences between (1) and (2) are completely irrelevant. You are not going to be dealing with fellow philosophers here, but with hard-headed administrators looking for funding. Politicans interested in winning the next election. Engineers whose interest in alien microbes extends only as far as how it may affect their machinery. These people make university administrators look like saints.

Philosophers (and academics generally) tend to be lousy at realpolitik. In my country, I saw academics create one of the most beautifully crafted government policies in the world on how religion should be dealt with in classrooms. It respects diversity, it makes room for sincerely held beliefs, it covers every contingency ... and it has been completely ignored by teachers for the last twenty years. You are setting yourself up for a major disappointment.

But, good luck.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michel, my post advocated forming a diversely-constituted committee to evaluate risks against benefits. How did this become a Schwitzgebel Doctrine that under no conditions should we interfere? (Carl Sagan did once suggest something along those lines, but it seems too radical to me for the reasons you suggest.) Surely, though, there's a lot of truth in your most recent comment about the motivations and reading styles of many administrators. I don't think the establishment of such a committee is a bureaucratic impossibility, though it would never happen because *I* suggested it! I do think that I can make a small contribution toward getting ideas out in the air for consideration, partly through my blog and other academic activities and partly through personal connections with people closer to the centers of power.