Monday, July 2, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Who’s in Charge?

Let’s say that aliens make contact with Earth, either directly or through a high information signal. The question is this: who’s in charge of our response? Quite understandably, our best minds working on the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence have been focusing their attention on finding a signal. There has been very little thought paid to how humans might organize their response. Alan Boyle of theMSNBC Cosmic Log recently brought the issue up in an interview with Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute. The hook for his piece is a new, and rather silly, survey conducted by the National Geographic Channel for the new TV show “Chasing UFOs.” Boyle breaks down the astonishing results. Yes, I’m being sarcastic…not about Boyle, who feels the same way, but in regards to the rather ridiculous questions and results, such as 65 percent of those polled thought President Obama would do a better job dealing with extraterrestrial contact than Mitt Romney (that’s actually one of the best questions). As usual, though, Mr. Boyle goes beyond the silliness and has a rather good discussion with Shostak. One of the topics was who should be in charge. Scientists have some initial protocols for how discovery of a signal should be handled, but they don’t go very far, and understandably so- extraterrestrial diplomacy would be a matter for governments and world bodies, not necessarily scientists. And yet governments and world bodies have made little, if any, preparation for how diplomacy might occur in a First Contact situation. Shostak goes as far to say “nobody’s in charge.”
The situation does leave me a bit perplexed. There is only one organization that represents most of the countries of this world. For me, it is clear the United Nations would be charged with formulating this response. The only way to make sure that the big nations don’t dominate the discussion is to take such diplomatic considerations out of the UN Security Council (where it would inevitably land at first) and into the General Assembly as soon as possible.
Scientists have been clearly dismissive of the United Nations when it comes to extraterrestrial contact and for good reason. Jill Tarter and others have brought many recommendations to the United Nations, only to have them be ignored or assigned to bureaucratic oblivion. However, if First Contact does occur the scientific community will need to get beyond that lack of foresight on the part of the UN and help to support the UN role in diplomacy. It’s quite simply the only system that makes sense. Sure, the UN will need advice from all sorts of folks, including the much more proactive and imaginative scientists in the International Astronomical Union. The diplomacy, though, needs to be a process that all countries, with all levels of scientific achievement, can participate equally. That’s going to be tough for those of us in the United States, Russia and China. We will feel some right to lead the efforts, because of our scientific achievements and our space exploration. While we will be, in effect, leading such things behind the scenes, it’s essential that all nations on Earth participate in the process. First Contact is a moment for all humans, not just those in wealthy nations. The United Nations General Assembly is the only group that has a ready-made forum for interaction between all nations.
Will the need ever arise? Who knows? But if it does we will need to scramble and answer the big question quickly: who’s in charge? Let’s hope that we make the logical choice of the United Nations and then move on to the bigger issues at hand.
Who do you think should be in charge in a First Contact situation? Let’s talk on the Alien FirstContact Facebook page.

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