Astrobiology and Society


Co-Chairs: Margaret Race (SETI Institute) and
Kathryn Denning (York University, Canada)

Astrobiology addresses three fundamental questions: “How did life begin and evolve?” “Is there life beyond Earth?” and “What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?” Prior to the development of modern science, these questions were largely in the realm of philosophy, theology, and ethics. NASA’s Astrobiology Program is now bringing the tools of science to bear on these questions, and exploring the intersection between the science of astrobiology and its humanistic, societal implications.

The objective of the Astrobiology and Society Focus Group is to bring together interested researchers across a broad range of expertise including ethics, sociology, theology, and philosophy, as well as the science of astrobiology, to address the social implications of astrobiological discoveries now and in the future. Initially, through a series of virtual and in-person meetings, this Focus Group will place its emphasis on understanding the societal response to and implications of the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life. The Group will consider not only the implications of astrobiology advances on society, but also, the potential effects of societal views or actions on astrobiology research and exploration.

The Focus Group will build on NAI’s strong IT capabilities in remote communication and collaboration (videocons, virtual workshops, online resources and databases, etc.) to integrate input from scholars in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and policy areas as we explore society’s response to rapid advances in astrobiology. A primary activity of the Focus Group will be to develop an online literature database and other resources/information for researchers interested in societal issues, and to disseminate research findings to professional audiences within and beyond the astrobiology community via journal articles, specially developed conference presentations, and interactions with E/PO specialists.

The Focus Group has been holding virtual meetings throughout 2012 and 2013. To express your interest in joining, please fill in your information here.


Our AB & S Focus Group was initially approved as a 3-year experiment to complement the Astrobiology science roadmap and determine whether the exploration of societal issues in a scholarly context could be productive and useful. In our proposal to the NAI in 2010, our specific objectives were to:

  • Formally establish and build the focus group membership,
  • Hold regular web meetings and discussions,
  • Begin gathering a database of information and literature for broad dissemination;
  • Plan and convene Astrobiology panels at 2-3 conferences of non-science experts and professional groups;
  • Publish a journal paper to disseminate information about Astrobiology and its societal contexts to broader audiences, and
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of this focus group as an ‘experiment’.

We’re glad to report that our focus group experiment has been quite successful with notable strides in all the key areas:

a) We formed a community of AB scientists and external humanities/social science researchers who share interests in the varied impacts of Astrobiology science on society and vice versa. Not only do we have a self-identified list of approx. 80+ individuals in the focus group, our web-meetings have routinely had 20-30 people in attendance over the past couple years. We owe special thanks to Melissa Kirven-Brooks, Marco Boldt, and Mike Toillion for their assistance in arranging the broadcasts etc.

b) We began gathering literature, resources, and contact information to begin building a database on AB&S topics for sharing with anyone interested in learning about key issues and active research areas. We compiled the information for eventual posting, (e.g. via a focus group website or some alternate means.) Even now, we continue exploring ways to speed up the development and dissemination of the overall database.
(NOTE: We will be sending out another request for input shortly to all members in an effort to add to the growing literature list and put the database in a more convenient location and format.)

c) Members of the focus group proposed and conducted special panels on AB & Society at two major professional conferences (2013) in addition to the session at AbSciCon2012. Focus group members presented panel sessions on Astrobiology and Society at both the 4S Conference (Soc. for the Social Study of Sciences, San Diego, Oct ’13,) and the AAR (Amer. Academy of Religion, Baltimore, Nov. ’13). Both panels were well attended and generated considerable interest and discussion. Thanks to John Harte, Ted Peters, and Arsev Aydinoglu for shepherding the process for each conference, from abstract through implementation.

d) As a team, we wrote and published a multi-authored paper about formation of the AB and Society roadmap and subsequent focus group, outlining the research ideas and collective interests of academic research importance.

Race, M.S., K. Denning, C. Bertka, S. Dick, A. Harrison, C. Impey, R. Mancinelli, and Workshop Participants, 2012. Astrobiology And Society: Building An Interdisciplinary Research Community. Astrobiology. October 2012, 12(10): 958-965.

e) Members of the group continue to publish their work in various venues, write proposals for grant funding, and initiated new collaborative discussions and ventures (both in the US and international). Some of this work would have been unlikely without the group interaction during its experimental period (e.g., book proposals, co-authored articles, discussions on possible interdisciplinary courses and case materials; workshops; additional conference presentations, etc.).

f) Dr. Steven Dick, holder of the 2013-14 Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology and Society at the Library of Congress (LoC) is in the process of compiling bibliographic materials on the many topics in the societal context of Astrobiology. In addition, he will be hosting a symposium on Astrobiology and Society at the LOC in Fall 2014. Watch for our next email for more information. Steve indicated his interest in working with the focus group to gather bibliographic information from our members. Information will be passed along for inclusion in his work this year.

Compiled by Margaret S. Race
(925) 890-3963 and


The minutes of the first Astrobiology and Society virtual meeting are available here and you can watch the video archive here.


The co-chairs of the Astrobiology and Society Focus Group have contributed a white paper to the NSF Directorate for the Social , Behavioral and Economic Sciences (NSF/SBE) 2020 effort to identify “grand challenge questions that are both foundational and transformative”.