Monday, October 4, 2010

Scientists Need to Acknowledge the U.N. Role in First Contact

Just when the whole United Nations flap was starting to recede, some very well respected folks are adding fuel to the fire. Recently, the London Sunday Times reported on a discussion by Dr. Mazlan Othman, the director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. The Times quoted Dr. Othman as telling a group of scientists that the U.N. would soon approve her role as coordinating First Contact strategies and acting as the go-to person for extraterrestrial diplomacy.

This led to an international storm of debate, with many people critical of the idea. What surprised me is the latest salvo, launched by someone who I have tremendous respect for, Dr. Paul Davies of Arizona State University. The physicist is the chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup for the International Academy of Astronautics. Davies is quoted by Alan Boyle of MSNBC as saying:

"We consider it our job, and have for many years, to cover this topic," said Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies, who chairs the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup. "We have no idea who this person is or where the U.N.'s coming from, but they don't seem to follow through very well."

I am astounded that Dr. Davies would not know of Dr. Othman or be surprised that folks at the United Nations are considering First Contact issues. Dr. Davies, First Contact, when and if it occurs is as much a diplomacy issue as it is a scientific challenge. The United Nations is the only body that represents most of the nations on planet Earth. An extraterrestrial diplomatic effort that only involves certain nations will only inflame all sorts of political sores here on planet Earth and lead to serious problems with a new relationship, when and if that point is reached. It is imperative that First Contact be a transparent and open effort involving every corner of the globe and all of humanity. The only way to achieve this is through the United Nations.

I am stunned that the IAA and the U.N. have not discussed these issues, even on a casual basis. SETI needs to be fully engaged with government at all levels in order for a comprehensive First Contact strategy to be developed. The current SETI post-contact action plan is anemic at best and lacking in the fundamental elements of diplomacy.

Davies is currently fleshing out the current post-detection protocol at a conference and hopefully substantive diplomatic considerations will be part of any revisions and additions.

I understand where Dr. Davies is coming from: so far the United Nations has done little to even consider the issue of extraterrestrial contact and suddenly they are appointing themselves in charge of the effort. He does throw out an important offer (again courtesy of MSNBC):

“We do welcome the interest of the U.N., as we welcome the interest of any major diplomatic organization," Davies said. "If they knew what they were doing, I would be slightly more confident."

Davies and Seth Shostak with the SETI Institute point out that the most likely scenario for discovering extraterrestrial intelligence will be intercepting a stray communication and that it could takes years or even decades to decode such a message and determine a response. This would certainly put the diplomatic considerations on the back burner and make the initial effort a scientific one. Still, it seems clear that the SETI folks need to work closely with the United Nations to help develop a more robust protocol that can take into account many issues. Perhaps the Office of Outer Space Affairs wouldn’t be the first office they would consider, but given the title, it would seem fitting that they might play a role in First Contact.

Dr. Othman was trying to take the first steps in developing a U.N. response to First Contact. The fact that she is getting blasted from all sides seems both unfair and ill advised.

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