Plans for alien contact found wanting

Enormous satellite dishes make up the search party for extraterrestrial life, but in the event of success, should a welcome party follow? Astronomers and biologists involved in the search for life on other planets are worried about a lack of regulatory and ethical policies to guide them.

“No government has plans” for what to do in the event of the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life, says astrophysicist Martin Dominik of the University of St Andrews, UK, who organized a conference at the Royal Society in London that began today.

For now, the only real framework for responding to the discovery of extraterrestrial life is in a document drafted by researchers involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It advises careful confirmation of the result, a prompt international announcement and refraining from responding immediately, says SETI founder Frank Drake of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

Dominik says the United Nations should have a similar policy in place. “It’s too important for any one country,” says Dominik, who hopes the two-day conference will stimulate the interest of policy makers.

Palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University, UK, warned of the possible consequences of detecting extraterrestrial life. He cited examples of convergent evolution in the Earth’s biological history as evidence that there are a limited number of solutions to sensory and social organizational problems. Alien senses could be similar to human senses, he told participants, and social life elsewhere could be as violent as on Earth, where leaf-cutter ants pillage and plunder, and humans wage war. “If the phone rings,” he says, “don’t pick it up.”

Some researchers say there are important policy implications even for the discovery of less complicated life, such as microbes within the Solar System. “While microorganisms on Earth get very low moral regard … on Mars such microbes would be in a different category because they would be the only representatives of life on Mars,” says astrobiologist Christopher McKay, of the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Nobody has decided whether it would be acceptable to commercialize microbes found in the Solar System, or to what extent they should be protected. McKay says that NASA abides by rules set by the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) regarding environmental contamination during the exploration of other moons and planets. An upcoming workshop will continue the discussion of space bioethics, he adds.

Researchers want to avoid the conflict and confusion which surrounded the 1996 claim that a meteorite from Mars, ALH 84001, contained potential evidence of primitive life.1 Astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, of the University of Oxford, UK, notes that a poorly handled scientific announcement of this scale would have massive consequences for the reputations and funding of researchers.

There is no UK government policy on the detection or ethics of extraterrestrial life just yet, but the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) did send a representative to today’s meeting. “It’s over the horizon for us,” says POST adviser Sarah Bunn.

Published 25 January by Lucas Laursen in Nature. You can watch the webcast from the talk “The eerie silence: are we alone in the universe?” at the The Royal Society.