5
Integrating Astronomy with the Other Disciplines of Astrobiology

As it discussed the challenges of integrating astronomical research into the general enterprise of astrobiology, the committee realized that the issue of integration was broader and generic to this intrinsically interdisciplinary subject—that is, astrophysics is but one of many disciplines that need to be brought to bear on astrobiology. It decided to attempt to address some of these more generic issues of fostering a healthy interdisciplinary interaction among fields that are themselves so complex that they require a focused, reductive approach.

The committee has identified three factors that currently limit the integration of astronomy and astrophysics with astrobiology and, indeed, that limit the integration of robust interdisciplinary research of any kind: (1) a lack of common goals and interests, (2) lack of a common language, and (3) insufficient background in allied fields on the part of experts to allow them to do useful interdisciplinary work.

COMMON GOALS AND INTERESTS

In a highly interdisciplinary enterprise such as astrobiology, a common background must be established at some level before common goals can be set. Physics may be the lowest common denominator in all the fields surrounding astrobiology, and more emphasis on the fundamental physical processes involved in the chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy of life may be warranted. Even after common goals are set, there is a need to overcome communication barriers (jargon is one such) and allow an informed chain of communication. How do we get microbiologists productively talking with astrophysicists and vice versa? NASA mission-driven research related to astrobiology (the Terrestrial Planet Finder, Mars missions, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, and so on) and associated funding opportunities can facilitate integrative research and cross-disciplinary collaborations and thus build on the astrobiology and exobiology basic research grant programs within NASA. In practice, fruitful interdisciplinary work may require a focused goal that mandates such interaction. Broad common goals for astrobiology can be established by the roadmapping process, as was done for the Astrobiology Roadmap, and by reports such as the current one.



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The Astrophysical Context of Life 5 Integrating Astronomy with the Other Disciplines of Astrobiology As it discussed the challenges of integrating astronomical research into the general enterprise of astrobiology, the committee realized that the issue of integration was broader and generic to this intrinsically interdisciplinary subject—that is, astrophysics is but one of many disciplines that need to be brought to bear on astrobiology. It decided to attempt to address some of these more generic issues of fostering a healthy interdisciplinary interaction among fields that are themselves so complex that they require a focused, reductive approach. The committee has identified three factors that currently limit the integration of astronomy and astrophysics with astrobiology and, indeed, that limit the integration of robust interdisciplinary research of any kind: (1) a lack of common goals and interests, (2) lack of a common language, and (3) insufficient background in allied fields on the part of experts to allow them to do useful interdisciplinary work. COMMON GOALS AND INTERESTS In a highly interdisciplinary enterprise such as astrobiology, a common background must be established at some level before common goals can be set. Physics may be the lowest common denominator in all the fields surrounding astrobiology, and more emphasis on the fundamental physical processes involved in the chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy of life may be warranted. Even after common goals are set, there is a need to overcome communication barriers (jargon is one such) and allow an informed chain of communication. How do we get microbiologists productively talking with astrophysicists and vice versa? NASA mission-driven research related to astrobiology (the Terrestrial Planet Finder, Mars missions, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, and so on) and associated funding opportunities can facilitate integrative research and cross-disciplinary collaborations and thus build on the astrobiology and exobiology basic research grant programs within NASA. In practice, fruitful interdisciplinary work may require a focused goal that mandates such interaction. Broad common goals for astrobiology can be established by the roadmapping process, as was done for the Astrobiology Roadmap, and by reports such as the current one.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life COMMON LANGUAGE The committee recommends a number of approaches for overcoming communication barriers: Continue and expand cross-disciplinary discussions on the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere, as are already being promoted by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Continue intellectual exchange through interdisciplinary meetings, focus groups, a speaker program, and workshops, all targeted at integrating astronomy and astrophysics with other astrobiology subdisciplines and identifying additional possibilities for astrophysical research. Promote a professional society (and cross-disciplinary branches within existing societies) that will cover the full range of disciplines that make up astrobiology, from astronomy to geosciences to biology. The International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life, which holds triennial meetings, may provide an appropriate basis for this. The BioAstronomy conferences sponsored by the International Astronomical Union,1 the astrobiology conferences held at NASA-Ames Research Center, and the Gordon Research Conferences on the Origin of Life are useful but do not fulfill the needed roles of a professional society. Broaden the definition of outreach activities within the NAI beyond general public awareness and K-12 education to achieve the greater degree of cross-fertilization that is needed among NAI senior researchers, postdoctoral fellows, and students. Reach out to university faculty in general, not just to NAI members and affiliates. This is essential for astrobiology to be embraced as a discipline and for extending and perpetuating support beyond NAI/NASA, which is otherwise unlikely to happen. BACKGROUND AND EDUCATION Education at all levels is a central issue. The challenge of cross- and interdisciplinary training is formidable. The committee urges NASA to take multiple approaches that both invest in the training of the next generation and give the larger scientific community opportunities for interdisciplinary training and collaboration. It calls for NASA astrobiology programs to provide opportunities for individuals or institutions to propose and carry out innovative approaches to interdisciplinary training. The highest priority should be placed on training the next generation of truly interdisciplinary scientists. It is also important to help current researchers who seek to learn about disciplines outside their own. One approach could be to establish specific astrobiology-oriented educational initiatives (programs, degrees, internships) for all levels of scientists. In addition, a distinguished speaker series would allow programs outside the NAI nodes to gain exposure to interdisciplinary endeavors within astrobiology. The committee advocates four educational approaches to integrating astrophysics with astrobiology and increasing intellectual exchange and collaboration across all disciplines of astrobiology: student research training, a graduate student exchange program, postdoctoral fellowships, and faculty enrichment. Student Research Training Preparing scientists to attack interdisciplinary research problems is best accomplished as early in their career as possible. Indeed, students matriculating within established disciplinary programs typically 1   See <http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/~meech/iau/>. Accessed April 28, 2005.

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The Astrophysical Context of Life identify with a discipline during the first year of their studies. The challenge is to provide a balance between research training that equips scientists with broad theoretical knowledge and skill in the use of experimental tools while still imparting meaningful depth to their expertise. The problem of scientific entrenchment grows more pronounced with time, as scientists become increasingly invested in the theoretical paradigms, experimental approaches, analytical methods, and publication venues in which they have been successful. The committee therefore endorses the idea that the next call for proposals for NAI nodes should encourage academic institutions to develop astrobiological curricula at both the graduate and undergraduate levels that would augment studies in established disciplines. It would be very useful to know if the graduate student training programs at current NAI and NASA Specialized Centers of Research and Training (NSCORT) nodes have been successful. Are students graduating who are trained both broadly on the issues of astrobiology and in sufficient depth to pursue research on specific topics? To what degree are they prepared to participate in truly interdisciplinary research? To what degree have they actually done so? The committee calls on NASA to fund a graduate fellowship program that would support high-caliber students in astrobiology, but not necessarily at NAI institutions. Fellowships would ensure continuity of funding for students at times of turnover in NAI centers. A prestigious and well-funded fellowship program would support and encourage the strongest students in astrobiology, regardless of their home institution. Graduate Student Exchange Program Graduate student training could be enhanced by exchange programs that allow students to matriculate in programs of disciplines other than their original discipline. Funds that would allow a student to study for some time at another institution or in another department within their own institution would give him or her a chance to learn new methodologies and gain experience in a related field of study. Graduate students are commonly funded as research assistants on specific projects or as teaching assistants. These positions typically do not afford the student either the time or resources for spending time away from their home department or institution. Exchange fellowships for 6 months to a year would not entail a large financial investment but could have a lasting impact on a young scientist. Postdoctoral Fellowships NAI already has an excellent fellowship program for postdoctoral studies. The postdoctoral fellows round out the expertise requirements of astrobiology. The Institute is working on a limited range of astrobiology issues, with additional work being funded through Exobiology. Postdocs are needed to fill crucial roles, and the manner of selection of NAI nodes does not ensure that even the most crucial roles are within the institute. NAI is encouraged to continue this program and to add resources that provide a means for recent Ph.D.’s to advance their research activities outside the discipline in which they were recently trained. As circumstances warrant, NAI postdoctoral fellows should be allowed or encouraged to serve at non-NAI institutions. Some astrobiology postdoctoral fellowships could be funded and administered from NASA Headquarters rather than by the NAI. Once again, it would be useful for NAI nodes to provide data on how successful the current program is. Are postdoctoral fellows participating in truly interdisciplinary research, or pursuing the narrower discipline in which they were trained?

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The Astrophysical Context of Life Faculty Enrichment The greatest challenge is to encourage established scientists to gain meaningful knowledge in disciplines outside their immediate area of expertise. The responsibilities of senior scientists are demanding, and little time is available for pursuits that are not targeted at immediate results. Most scientists are, however, driven by a love of knowledge, and they eagerly welcome the chance for intellectual enrichment provided through university sabbatical programs. A sabbatical enrichment program that provides resources for faculty to retool and take advantage of educational opportunities at other institutions would help established scientists counter forces that keep them entrenched within their disciplines. The NAI is encouraged to provide a sabbatical-enrichment program specifically designed to facilitate the interdisciplinary training of established scientists. At the same time, visiting scientists can share their own expertise, further enhancing cross-disciplinary discourse. Recommendations NASA should encourage NAI teams to institutionalize education and training in astrobiology. In particular, the committee recommends that the next competition for NAI nodes encourage the creation of academic programs for interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate training in astrobiology. In order to provide opportunities for graduate training within and outside the NAI nodes, NASA should establish an astrobiology graduate student fellowship program similar to existing programs in space and Earth science. These fellowships should be open to students enrolled in any accredited graduate program within the United States. NASA should encourage the NAI to foster cross- and interdisciplinary training opportunities for graduate students and faculty, as already exist for postdoctoral fellows. In particular, the committee recommends that exchange programs be created to allow students to matriculate in programs outside their home field and that resources be made available for a sabbatical program for the interdisciplinary training of established scientists. NASA should encourage the NAI nodes and the NASA Specialized Centers for Research and Training nodes to engage in a self-study as part of their reporting processes to assess the progress of graduate training and postdoctoral programs in training truly interdisciplinary scientists who actively engage in interdisciplinary research. The NAI should sponsor a distinguished speaker series in astrobiology. It would identify accomplished speakers and provide travel support for them to present their interdisciplinary research at universities and colleges. The speakers should be selected on the basis of both disciplinary and demographic diversity. The institutions hosting the speakers would be required to involve multiple academic departments or programs.

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