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Executive Summary The past decade has seen a remarkable revolution in genomic research, the discoveries of extreme environ- ments in which organisms can live and even flourish on Earth, the identification of past and possibly present liquid-water environments in our solar system, and the detection of planets around other stars. Together these accomplishments bring us much closer to understanding the origin of life, its evolution and diversification on Earth, and its occurrence and distribution in the cosmos. A new multidisciplinary program called Astrobiology was initiated in 1997 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to foster such research and to make available additional resources for individual and consortium-based efforts. Other agencies have also begun new programs to address the origin, evolution, and cosmic distribution of life. Five years into the Astrobiology program, it is appropriate to assess the scientific and programmatic impacts of these initiatives. Edward J. Weller, NASA's associate administrator for the Office of Space Science, tasked the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL) with assessing the state of NASA's Astrobiology program and with providing by mid-2002 a report presenting the following:2 · An assessment of the direction of the NASA Astrobiology program; · A survey of initiatives for seeking life in the universe conducted by other U.S. federal and nongovern- mental groups; similar activities by foreign space agencies should also be considered; · Identification of any enhancements to the U.S. program that might be warranted; and · Recommendations for coordination of NASA efforts with those of other parties. STATUS OF NASA'S ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAM In preparing this study, the committee recognized that NASA's Astrobiology program, and astrobiology as a novel intellectual endeavor, are still at an early stage of definition and development. Nevertheless, remarkable progress has been made over a short period of time in defining the key scientific questions, initiating research and training programs, and developing collaborations on a national and international scale. As this intellectual en- deavor matures toward becoming a scientific field in its own right, continued effort must be exerted to involve the appropriate breadth of disciplines and diversity of novel techniques in astrobiological research. These may change with time as progress is made on the search for life elsewhere in the universe and for a deep understanding of how life originated on Earth and evolved over 4 billion years. 1
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2 LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE The 1998-1999 roadmap for the Astrobiology program is the product of a successful initial planning effort that shaped the scope of astrobiology and gave the research area a set of objectives to guide research funding and the assembly of research groups. As with every such initial effort, there is room for improvement. COEL finds the current roadmap to be too broad and not selective enough in defining these three categories: the central research goals of astrobiology, those goals that are peripheral to astrobiology but still may contribute, and those research areas that are genuinely outside astrobiology as an intellectually coherent study. Recommendations · NASA should more carefully craft its definition of astrobiology as a discipline whose central focus is a selected set of issues directly linked to the origin, evolution, and ubiquity of life in the cosmos. · An important operational goal of astrobiology is to inform NASA missions with respect to the tech- niques and targets for the search for life elsewhere, and the search for clues to the steps leading to the origin of life on Earth. · The core scientific areas within astrobiology ought to be specifically and selectively defined as those that deal with the origin, evolution, and occurrence of life in the cosmos as embraced in NASA's research and analysis programs in the general areas of exobiology, evolutionary biology, planetary origin and evolution, cosmochemistry, and astronomical studies relating to the search for origins. · Global change should be defined more carefully in the next roadmap with respect to the time scales that are relevant to the astrobiological goals of understanding environments conducive to the origin and evolution of life. · A critical analysis should be undertaken of the relevance of microgravity research to the central scientific goals of astrobiology. After almost 5 years of funded research within NASA's Astrobiology program, enough additional evolution of astrobiology has occurred that a new roadmap will be of value. COEL understands that NASA is now undertak- ing a new roadmap planning process. The ongoing roadmapping process for NASA's Astronomical Search for Origins program, which concerns research into the origin and evolution of physical systems from cosmological to planetological scales, has the opportunity to address an area of concern that this committee considers in the body of this report in some detail: the relationship and interaction between the Astronomical Search for Origins and the Astrobiology programs (see Chapter 3~. In particular, the research interactions between these two areas seem much weaker at present than they could be, and certainly much weaker than those between Astrobiology and the evolutionary biology or geo- biological communities. Recommendation In the current respective roadmap processes, careful attention should be paid to the relationship between the Astrobiology and the Astronomical Search for Origins programs in order to identify overlaps, common areas of research, and approaches to enhance the level of interaction in research. These limitations aside, the committee is impressed by the speed with which a community is being built in astrobiological research and education. Many of the standard indicators of the emergence of a bona fide new interdisciplinary field journals, university programs, annual meetings, and so on seem to suggest that Astrobi- ology is developing quickly and carving a special role for itself among NASA programs, and that an intellectually distinct discipline may be taking shape. The enthusiasm and drive of scientists who have aligned their central research foci toward astrobiology, in particular those involved in the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), made a deep impression on the committee. NASA Headquarters, NASA's Ames Research Center, and key members of the scientific community have done a good job of initiating the institute, encouraging a broader community of astrobiology researchers, and developing and implementing training and degree programs. Nonetheless, certain issues need to be addressed to ensure long- term scientific and programmatic success.
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 3 Recommendation NASA should undertake a comprehensive review of the scientific and educational results of its Astro- biology program in general, and of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in particular, at the end of a decade of activity, in order to assess the longer-term effects of the founding of the new program and the new institute on the research area. This review would include analysis of the significant scientific contribu- tions that have arisen from the program. It should be undertaken no later than 2008, when the NAI is a decade old. NASA's Astrobiology program has evolved, through the efforts of NASA Headquarters, into a tripartite structure of consortium science, individual principal investigator (PI) research, and technology-development programs. The highest-profile element is the NAI, originally conceived as a virtual institute relying on electronic communication technologies to allow extensive interactions between participating institutions (nodes) without geographic limitations. While the NAI has generated exciting and, in some cases, important research results even though it is less than 5 years old, the virtual institute development has lagged behind. Recommendation NASA should critically review the electronic communication needs and costs required to make the NASA Astrobiology Institute a virtual institute along the lines of the original vision established by NASA's Ames Research Center and the advisory committees tasked with evaluating the institute concept. Upgrades to accomplish this vision ought to be in place by the time the next round of node selections is made. Because of the scale and high profile of its coordinated research, the NAI is important to the Astrobiology program. NASA has done a good job of publicizing NAI research and wrapping it into NASA planning for astrobiologically relevant missions. However, for astrobiology to mature as a long-term scientific field, NASA must also attract and recognize astrobiologically oriented researchers who are not affiliated with the NAI. Like- wise, the NAI's research programs and its ability to place graduates of its programs in positions beyond the existing NAI nodes depend on enhancing scientific collaborations with non-NAI scientists. To date, the NAI has not adequately fostered such collaborations. Recommendation As a new interdisciplinary scientific endeavor, astrobiology spans a much larger volume of intellectual and capital resources than the NASA Astrobiology Institute itself. In its public materials, NASA should emphasize the broad base of national scientific capability in astrobiology, which is stabilized by three types of programs (consortium science, individual principal investigator r~.~.nrc.h ~nr1 t~.~.hnolos~v-rl~.v~.lonm~.nt nrn- grams) and not just the institute itself. ~~ ~ A------- r- The NAI itself should encourage collaborations not merely within the institute, but with outside investigators and facilities as well. A particularly important avenue for promoting cooperation has been the NAI's role in the establishment of "focus groups" to examine specific topical areas relevant to astrobiology. Membership on some, but not all, focus groups has been openly advertised and is available to all interested scientists. Recommendation The administration of the NASA Astrobiology Institute should consider an incentive in which the nodes are rewarded for broadening intellectual involvement in their research beyond the NAI boundaries. In particu- lar, ensuring that the focus groups are open for participation by all interested parties will strengthen their effectiveness in fostering such interactions. The consortium-based nature of NAI research requires long periods for the full benefits of the research to be realized. At the same time, the introduction of new nodes can create novel opportunities for the institute. NASA' s challenge will be to balance these two kinds of opportunities appropriately over the lifetime of the NAI.
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4 LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE Recommendation The current NASA Astrobiology Institute nodes should conduct careful, internal, nonadvocate reviews of their own programs to ensure that they continue to fulfill the original intent of the NAI in establishing astrobiology as a field of study. These reviews should honestly and frankly assess the extent to which the NAI model has been responsible for new discoveries and insights that traditional research and analysis programs might not be able to foster. NAI nodes should be required to reapply every 5 years for member- ship in the NAI. Weaker nodes should be retired so that the NAI has an opportunity to benefit from new ideas and approaches. ENHANCEMENTS TO NASA'S ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAM In addition to the NAI, a second important experiment in consortium science is the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training (NSCORT) program at two institutions the Exobiology Center at the University of California, San Diego, and the New York Center for Studies of the Origin of Life at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the first of which has been in existence for a decade. NSCORT science is co-located at each institution (or confined to a small number of geographically adjacent institutions) rather than being collaborative between a larger number of geographically dispersed institutions as is the case with the NAI. The success of the older of the two NSCORT consortia in producing talented and accomplished graduates recommends this program, and COEL sees it as a worthy second element in the consortium science leg of the Astrobiology triad. Recommendation The NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training (NSCORT) program should continue as a distinct approach to localized consortium science. It should continue in parallel with the NASA Astrobiology Institute and should neither be altered in an attempt to fit the NAI mold, nor merged with the NAI. The research and analysis effort in the Astrobiology program is currently focused on the Exobiology program, which in many ways is the intellectual precursor of the Astrobiology program. The general merits of competitive research and analysis programs have been discussed in other National Research Council (NRC) reports,3 and in Astrobiology they have an added benefit of extending research beyond NAI member consortia. Research and analysis is a key second leg of the triad of science and technology activities that foster this new research area, and it could be expanded modestly to the point at which it is comparable in size with the other components of the program. COEL commends NASA for recognizing the long-term and continuing high value of research and analysis programs within and related to NASA Astrobiology. These and comparable programs are essential to the contin- ued scientific vigor of astrobiology through the introduction of new ideas and researchers to the program. COEL offers no advice on whether the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology programs should be merged, except to point out that some programmatic advantage exists in maintaining the identity of the different disciplines through well-focused research and analysis programs. Recommendation NASA should ensure a balance of astrobiological research activity among its research and analysis programs (i.e., the current Exobiology and planned Evolutionary Biology programs), its technology programs (i.e., the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development program and the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program), and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. A well- balanced triad of science and technology efforts expressed through these programs will ensure the long-term vigor of astrobiological research. Just as NASA's Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program (PIDDP) within the Solar System Exploration program has served to generate new ideas for flight instruments, so should the Astrobiology program
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY s contain a component for the development of new technologies relevant to the field. While the NAI is playing an important role in mission definition through its focus groups, a crucial additional component is a technology- development program for astrobiological instrumentation that might fly in space or be used to analyze samples and environments here on Earth. Recommendations · Although the Astrobiology program's present level of involvement in flight missions is appropriate, NASA is cautioned against attempting to force the NASA Astrobiology Institute or other elements of Astro- biology into an artificially focused role of trying to design specific "astrobiology missions." While individual NAI investigators are encouraged to propose instrument concepts or whole Discovery-class (or equivalent) missions, NASA should be careful not to bias the usual peer-review selection process for instruments and missions by specially labeling proposals proffered by NAI investigators. . NASA should continue the two astrobiology technology programs, Astrobiology Science and Tech- nology Instrument Development, and Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets, and in addition the Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program (in the Solar System Exploration program) and the Extrasolar Planets Advanced Missions Concepts program (in the Astronomical Search for Origins program) as part of the efforts to detect life in this and other planetary systems. ADDITIONAL ENHANCEMENTS TO NASA'S ASTROBIOLOGY PROGRAM Research efforts that are directly identified as astrobiology are dominated today by the biological and geologi- cal sciences. Yet the intellectual sphere covered by objectives in astrobiology includes much of the planetary sciences and the stellar and planetary aspects of the astronomical search for origins. Involvement of planetologists and astronomers has been hampered by a strong skepticism, even suspicion, in those communities regarding the scientific value of astrobiology as an intellectual endeavor. The committee believes that some of this skepticism will decline as astrobiology demonstrates results and as the future emerging field is better defined both intellectu- ally and programmatically (that is, through future roadmaps). But there remains the difficulty of interaction between research areas whose techniques, technical language, and experimental approaches are very different. The long-term success of astrobiology in addressing its objectives will depend on a deeper and more extensive exchange of ideas with the traditional space sciences. COEL commends NASA for developing a strong and well-balanced Solar System Exploration program that forms an important foundation for much of the central endeavor of astrobiology. Recommendations · The NASA Astrobiology Institute should initiate a much broader suite of focus group programs with planetary scientists, beyond those currently devoted to studies of Mars and Europa, to create a deeper level of mutual understanding and appreciation of the two research areas and to provide new perspectives for future solar system exploration. · NASA should foster more extensive links between the Astrobiology and the Astronomical Search for Origins programs. In the short term, these linkages require cooperation between the NAI and major astro- nomical institutions, such as the Space Telescope Science Institute and universities with extensive astronomi- cal programs, in creating joint workshops and focus groups to educate researchers in both areas and to initiate more extensive and novel research endeavors. · Panels evaluating NAI membership proposals must be broadly constituted to ensure expert evaluation of research programs that are intellectually strong but have a discipline balance very different from that found in the existing NAI nodes. · NASA should study the feasibility and desirability of creating and funding an institute, akin to the NAI, dedicated to consortium-based science and technology (e.g., involving multi-institution teams) related to the astronomical search for origins on the full range of spatial and temporal scales.
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6 LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE ASTROBIOLOGY AND OTHER PUBLIC AND PRIVATE PROGRAMS Other federal agencies besides NASA have played important and distinctive roles in the fostering of astrobi- ology. The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Life in Extreme Environments (LExEn) program was vital in bringing talented biologists and physical scientists together to explore important problems in astrobiology outside the NAI itself. Moreover, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the wellspring from which comes much of the biological talent that NASA desires. The Department of Energy (DOE) has a uniquely effective program for sequencing the genomes of microor- ganisms, many of which are of relevance to astrobiological research. NASA should strengthen its connection with the DOE to take advantage of the latter's uniquely productive and broad gene-sequencing program. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has devoted considerable attention to sequencing the genomes of eco- nomically important plants and animals. These data are potentially important to astrobiologists for the information they may contain about long-term climate excursions. NASA should engage the USDA in the development of a program to enable astrobiologists to both interpret and use this record. As a basic rule, access of astrobiologists to genome-sequencing opportunities at other government agencies should be designed so as not to discourage or exclude access to other sequencing capabilities, including those in private industry. Recommendation In view of the diverse activities in basic science relevant to astrobiology conducted by other federal agencies, NASA should engage the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in detailed studies of the desirability of, and the means for establishing, bilateral and multilateral programs in astrobiology. Perhaps the most romantic venture in astrobiology is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). This effort has had a checkered reception by scientists and federal lawmakers, with the result that the current efforts are almost entirely privately funded. The SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, the nexus of such efforts in the United States, has accomplished in a spectacular way the founding of a science institute and the procurement of stable private funding to carry on the search. Because world-class scientists lead the SETI Institute, it is a carefully designed effort and worthy of notice by the scientific community and relevant federal agencies. The leadership of the SETI Institute has forged a unique endeavor out of private and public funds, maintained a high standard of scientific research through its peer-reviewed research activities, and articulated clearly and authoritatively the rationale for approaches to a comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence. INTERNATIONAL ACTIVITIES IN ASTROBIOLOGY International efforts in astrobiology have lagged behind those in the United States but are now beginning to gain momentum. While Europe has long had vigorous exobiology research efforts, it was the creation of the NAI that spurred the development of astrobiological institutes and consortia overseas. Notable among these are a large research center in Spain and consortia in the United Kingdom, Australia, and across the European Union. The efforts of a handful of visionary scientists abroad and in the United States, working with the NAI as a catalyst, enabled these to be initiated. For joint endeavors in astrobiology between the United States and other countries to be fruitful, work will have to be undertaken by NASA to ease the strictures of technology transfer regulations. COEL applauds the efforts of Spanish astrobiologists in creating a world-class astrobiology center, the Centro de Astrobiology (CAB), from the ground up. NASA and the NAI deserve credit for doing their part in fostering the growth of the CAB through encouragement and the creation of associate membership status for the CAB in the NAI. The committee encourages NASA and the NAI to continue to seed efforts in astrobiology worldwide through the free exchange of scientific information, experimental techniques, and computational results. Association or affiliation with the NAI ought to be used as a tool to encourage international efforts in this regard, but it should be approached with care so as not to give the impression that the United States is in any sense pressuring other countries.
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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 7 Finally, the committee notes that the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) will continue to make it difficult for scientists to fully interact on astrobiology projects internationally. The changes to ITAR that came into force in April 2002 may ease this situation by making it clearer that fundamental research collaboration does not require an ITAR license and that the exchange of most forms of technical information in the public domain can proceed without impediment with nationals of NATO and a few other allied countnes. Some problems remain, especially collaboration with foreign scientists and students from non-NATO countnes, so it is important for NASA to continue to monitor the situation and to help ensure that ITAR does not have a suffocating effect on the free exchange of the results of space and biological sciences research. CONCLUSION The foundational questions that astrobiology addresses will not be answered in the short term. But as a coordinated, focused effort involving consortium- and individual principal investigator-dnven science, as well as technology development, NASA's Astrobiology program is well poised to catalyze fundamentally important discoveries concerning the origin of life, its distribution in the cosmos, and the long-term fate of life on Earth. In the list below, COEL summarizes the overall problems that NASA's Astrobiology program should address in the near future to ensure its own health: · Definition of astrobiology and its goals. The widespread perception that astrobiology as both an intellec- tual endeavor and a NASA program is ill-defined continues to impair its interaction with related scientific disciplines. · Evaluation of the impact of NAI on astrobiology. With one or two exceptions, the PIs of the current nodes, as well as the NAI director, argued that it was premature to assess how the NAI has affected astrobiology in ways that a standard research and analysis program could not have. This question will be asked with increasing urgency in the coming years, and before long the NAI must undertake a serious self-assessment to answer it. · Review/retirement of existing programs. While the desire to maintain funding for excellent nodes is understandably strong, the mission of the NAI demands that new researchers and new institutions be brought into the NAI to expand the emerging field of astrobiology. A full recompetition at the end of each 5-year cycle, in which old and new consortia compete with each other, is the best way to accomplish this. · Insularity of the NAI. The natural tendency for NAI consortia to see their scientific "universe" as being within the NAI must continue to be resisted. The NAI should be a catalyst for interdisciplinary research in astrobiology among a much larger set of researchers than those who are members of NAI nodes. · The "astro" in astrobiology. Astronomy remains the key fundamental discipline that has yet to have a full Impact on astrobiology. Efforts to better integrate astronomical research into the Astrobiology program require careful planning, as well as recognition that astronomical studies relating to the search for origins themselves constitute a discipline that is so active and expansive as to merit consideration of its own virtual institute, modeled on the NAI. NOTES AND REFERENCES 1. For clarity, COEL distinguishes between Astrobiology the NASA program and astrobiology a broader area of scientific inquiry defined by some of its practitioners as a new field of which NASA's program is a part. 2. See the preface for the full charge given to the committee. 3. See, for example, Space Studies Board, National Research Council, Supporting Research and Data Analysis in NASA's Science Pro- grams, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1998.
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