The House science committee carved out two hours of time on Wednesday to discuss the search for extraterrestrial life. Because the House has just seven days of work left before the end of the year, this hearing idea has generated some pretty harsh criticism. But laments about an unproductive Congress finding time to look for aliens of all things are sadly misguided. Today's hearing is a great idea, and it's doing something remarkable: getting the Republican-led, scientifically challenged committee to seriously discuss an important field of research — and the funding needed to keep it going. So stop making fun of it.
To be clear, today's hearing is not about tinfoil hats, nor is it a call for the Obama administration to release the full contents of the X-Files, which totally exist. It's titled "Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond." It features testimony from astrobiologists from NASA, MIT, and the Library of Congress. For comparison, here are some other recent hearing topics from the committee chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texan who, among other things, is a climate change skeptic: "Is My Data on Healthcare.gov Secure?," "Strengthening Transparency and Accountability within the Environmental Protection Agency," and "EPA Power Plant Regulations: Is the Technology Ready?"
Astrobiology is a pretty broad category of study, but it includes the search for earth-like exoplanets beyond our solar system, and the identification of possible biosignatures on other worlds, including Mars. But the research also includes significant work close to home, including research into the past, present and future of life on Earth. Unsurprisingly, that research, and the technology used to complete it, has a cornucopia of very practical applications. Astrobiology technology, for example, was used to locate and map out the plume from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, something NASA's Dr. Mary A. Voytek mentioned in her testimony today.
It's really cool stuff, and has produced a series of exciting discoveries in recent years: before the Kepler spacecraft ended its planet-hunting mission, it collected years of data that indicates there are billions of earth-like planets in the milky way alone. Just yesterday, NASA announced that the Hubble telescope traced signatures of water in the atmospheres of five different planets, orbiting nearby stars. But the research leading to these discoveries are exactly the sorts of programs that the agency might cut if the sequestration is still around in early 2014. As The Alantic explained earlier today, those cuts would likely kill the still-active Cassani mission to learn about nearby planets. The Planetary Society is in the middle of an urgent campaign to lobby Congress to stop those cuts. In the meantime, there are some worrying reports coming from NASA on the near future of the search for other planets:
Wow. NASA is currently have a Town Hall meeting and essentially telling planetary scientists to look for new jobs. Wow.— Mike Brown (@plutokiller) December 3, 2013
The subject matter of the hearing was so cool, it seems, that the Republican committee members forgot to grill the panelists on why it deserves money in the budget at all. Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican, asked the scientists "Let's assume that we find life? What do we do then? How does that change things with us in the way we view ourselves?" Rep. Bill Posey, also a Republican, noted, "You've pretty much indicated life on other planets is inevitable. It's just a matter of time and funding." Rep. Ralph Hall, the former chair of the committee who has a pretty bad record of being a science enthusiast, said to the witnesses:
I just don't know how I'm going to tell my barber, or folks from my hometown, about your testimony here. But you must really enjoy waking up each morning and going to work.
These are not the most sophisticated questions and statements in the world. But they are exciting ones, and ones that betray a curiosity and engagement with what science does that is not customarily seen in this wing of Congress. That's in part because planetary research is the sort of research that gets everyone excited. It's kind of a gateway science, which is why it has fruitful applications to science education initiatives, and public engagement. Although it's too early to tell whether today's panel will translate into relief for any of the many, many cash-strapped publicly funded research initiatives in the future (it could very well have no effect at all), these are exactly the kinds of discussions legislators need to have about the programs hurt by budget cuts. With adequate resources and funding, witness Sara Seager told the committee that scientists could find signs of life beyond earth in a generation. But right now, that funding isn't there.