NASA scientists are calling for a new framework to report evidence for life beyond Earth. Given that "our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth," NASA chief scientist Jim Green and colleagues write in a Nature article, and that the public is very interested in knowing if that happens, it's essential that scientists learn how to carefully and methodically announce findings that will almost certainly be sensationalized. It's a fascinating challenge for science communicators to consider! From NASA:
They envision a scale informed by decades of experience in astrobiology, a field that probes the origins of life on Earth and possibilities of life elsewhere.
"Having a scale like this will help us understand where we are in terms of the search for life in particular locations, and in terms of the capabilities of missions and technologies that help us in that quest," Green said.
The scale contains seven levels, reflective of the winding, complicated staircase of steps that would lead to scientists declaring they've found life beyond Earth. As an analogy, Green and colleagues point to the Technology Readiness Level scale, a system used inside NASA to rate how ready a spacecraft or technology is to fly. Along this spectrum, cutting-edge technologies such as the Mars helicopter Ingenuity begin as ideas and develop into rigorously tested components of history-making space missions.
The authors hope that in the future, scientists will note in published studies how their new astrobiology results fit into such a scale. Journalists could also refer to this kind of framework to set expectations for the public in stories about new scientific results, so that small steps don't appear to be giant leaps.
"Until now, we have set the public up to think there are only two options: it's life or it's not life," said Mary Voytek, head of NASA's Astrobiology Program in at NASA Headquarters in Washington and study co-author. "We need a better way to share the excitement of our discoveries, and demonstrate how each discovery builds on the next, so that we can bring the public and other scientists along on the journey."