The House astrobiology hearing: remarkable or mostly harmless?

On Wednesday, the full House Science Committee held a hearing on “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond.” The hearing got a degree of critical attention beforehand, with some questioning if this was the best use of the committee’s, or the House’s, time. “No wonder the American people think this Republican Congress is from another planet – they’re more interested in life in space than Americans’ lives,” a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) said in a statement that contrasted the hearing with other issues the DCCC felt the House was ignoring. (While the DCCC may have felt that way, that did not dissuade Democratic members of the science committee from participating in the hearing.)

After the hearing, the perception of the hearing’s value shifted, with some commending the House Science Committee for devoting time to astrobiology. “Congress Just Held a Remarkable Two-Hour Hearing on Aliens,” proclaimed io9, a publication primarily devoted to science fiction, calling the hearing (which actually lasted about 90 minutes, not two hours) “a refreshingly pro-science move.” Gizmodo, io9’s corporate sibling that focuses primarily on technology, was similarly enthused: “You must watch the US Congress’ hearing on alien life—it’s so good.” And from “On Wednesday, something remarkable happened at Capitol Hill. In a special hearing, lawmakers of the House Science Committee discussed the search for extraterrestrial life with three experts for 2 hours.”

But, just as the criticism of the hearing may have been overblown, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction after the hearing. Members of both parties remarked how they found the topic exciting, and asked for its implications in areas ranging from STEM education to technology spinoffs to international cooperation. However, observational bias was also playing a role: just over a dozen of the committee’s 40 members participated in the hearing, some of whom arrived late and/or left early. That’s not uncommon for a hearing by any means, given the slate of other hearings and meetings taking place simultaneously, but the impression that some of the coverage provided—a full committee sitting in rapt attention for two hours—is a false one. There were also some notable absences, like Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee; and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a former committee chairman who lost out to Lamar Smith (R-TX) in the race to chair the committee in this Congress. Committee vice-chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) attended part of the hearing, but posed no questions to the witnesses.

It’s also unclear how the committee’s interest in astrobiology, at least among those who participated in the hearing, would translate into policy that would benefit research in the field. “What can we, as members of Congress, do to expedite the process” for finding evidence of life beyond Earth, Smith asked during the hearing. “I have a hunch part of the answer is going to be funding.” And, indeed, one of the witnesses, Mary Voytek, NASA senior scientist for astrobiology, called for “continued support” but acknowledged that “funding is tough.” The House Science Committee doesn’t appropriate funding, although its proposed NASA authorization bill would authorize $30 million in each of fiscal years 2014 and 2015 for NASA’s astrobiology institute and call on National Academies to develop an astrobiology strategy. That bill, though, has not made progress since the committee approved it over the summer.

There was one interesting item in the hearing that much of the other coverage of the hearing missed: a greater openness by Congress—or, at least, leadership of the Science Committee—to federal funding of projects in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), two decades after Congress killed NASA’s last major SETI effort, the High Resolution Microwave Survey. “It would be great to repair this divorce between the search for microbial and intelligent life by including a more robust program on SETI,” Steven Dick, who holds the Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, said. “I think there’s more interest today and more possibilities today with the discovery of all these exoplanets” to support SETI research, Smith responded.

The hearing, though, ended without providing any clear policy direction regarding NASA’s astrobiology program or funding for it. The committee’s leadership didn’t even bother with a post-hearing press release about the hearing, although the Democratic caucus did issue one that summarized the comments of the witnesses and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who only briefly touched on policy: “I would be remiss were I not to make note that continuing to provide adequate funding to NASA’s science programs is of critical importance if we are to continue to make progress in astrobiology as well as other important scientific fields.”

“I think you have enlightened us all, and we look forward to staying in touch with you about the issues involved,” Smith said at the conclusion of the hearing. Getting enlightened on a topic is rarely a waste of time, but at the same time doesn’t necessarily represent a science policy breakthrough.

7 comments to The House astrobiology hearing: remarkable or mostly harmless?

  • Hiram

    “remarkable or mostly harmless?”

    Probably both. Remarkable in that it was a rare expression of unbridled support for science. Not for a science project, mind you, and dollars shoveled into a congressional district, but for science itself. Support for curiosity and inquisitiveness. Chairman Smith seemed in particular awe of the goals of this work. Harmless in that, yes, it didn’t do any harm, which is more than you can say about other hearings. Congressional hearings are, by the way, usually specifically constituted to do harm — loudly raising policy as being questionable. Such grandstanding is what hearings are mostly for.

    As to low attendance at this hearing, as noted, there is absolutely nothing unusual about that. The purpose of the hearing is to get important words in the congressional record, and if it’s not about doing harm, and taking credit for doing that harm, there is no reason for lots of people to be there to offer smiles. Ones absence in no way reflects lack of support. It is noteworthy that this wasn’t a space subcommittee hearing, but a full committee hearing, which sends the strong and smart message that in the congressional view, astrobiology is about a lot more than space.

    Wanting to call this hearing a “science policy breakthrough” is setting up a straw man. It’s not about breakthroughs. It’s about establishing that the nation, represented by Congress, has some real interest in this field. It’s remarkable enough these days for congressional leaders to speak up about science and at least say “We would if we could!” In some sense, the hearing makes the headlight pivot over to Congress, making people want to ask, “Well, why the hell can’t you?”

    As I said before, this hearing about space didn’t mention human space flight in the context of exploration and inspiration. Those words were used instead in describing science. The hearing didn’t mention astronauts, space resources, and only touched on jobs (in the context of STEM education). Remarkable!

    • E.P. Grondine

      Hi Hiram –

      Thank you for making your own science spending priorities clear to us.

      I hope you can appreciate that the taxpayers may hold far different priorities, and that you will respect their wishes as expressed through the legislative process.

  • For what it’s worth … Three days ago, I posted the video of this hearing on YouTube.

    Since then, it’s has 10,000+ views.

    Go figure.

    From the comments, it seems that most of the views are from the UFO alien conspiracy community. Several claim the hearing was part of the great government UFO coverup.

    That would be the same government that can’t even get a web site to work properly.

    The video has gone viral somewhere, but where I haven’t a clue.

    Personally, I thought the hearing was banal and lacking purpose.

    • Hiram

      Especially strange since the video is archived at the Committee site. But the YouTube version is advantageous in that it’s easier to skip around. As far as I can tell, with the Committee archive version, which is essentially streamed, you need to download the whole thing to play any part of it.

      • Two reasons why I download the committee hearings to YouTube:

        (1) Permanence. Hearings can disappear at any time from the committee sites. They can’t control YouTube.

        (2) Ease. You have to know the hearing occurred, you have to find its page, and you have to click on Archive to watch. With YouTube, it’s in a common location and can be located easily with a search. It can also be embedded on another page, which you can’t do with the committee hearing.

        • Hiram

          Thank you for doing this, and it’s true that such archives can disappear, and that streaming an archive is annoying. But as far as locating it easily, geez, it’s a House Science hearing. Why would I go anywhere but the House Science website to find it? That’s about as common as a location as you can get. There you can also find the written testimony.

          Should any congressional webmaster be listening, presenting an archive by streaming it in real time, rather than making it rapidly downloadable as a file is nuts. Perhaps the committee wants to discourage extraction of out-of-context bits and pieces from it.

  • yg1968

    Very interesting hearing. Hopefully, something will come out of it.

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