Astrobiology (general)

Breakthrough Results In Astrobiology: Is ‘High Risk’ Research Needed?

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
International Journal of Astrobiology
November 13, 2023
Filed under , ,
Breakthrough Results In Astrobiology: Is ‘High Risk’ Research Needed?
(a) Distribution of risk assessment among high-impact astrobiology-related papers. Graph showing the proportion of high-impact papers the authors contacted considered to be from low, medium, or high-risk research. (b) Average impact of papers from each risk category. Graph showing the average impact of articles, quantified by their FWCI (Field Weighted Citation Impact), as a function of the author’s risk estimate. The error bars correspond to the standard error. Risk and FWCI are correlated, with the correlation coefficient r calculated as R2 = 0.265 and the p-value calculated as 6.92 × 10−4.

Astrobiology is a scientific endeavour involving great uncertainties. This could justify intellectual risk-taking associated with research that significantly deviates from the mainstream, to explore new avenues. However, little is known regarding the effect of such maverick endeavours.

To better understand the need for more or less risk in astrobiology, we investigate to what extent high-risk / high-impact research contributes to breakthrough results in the discipline. We gathered a sample of the most impactful astrobiology papers of the past 20 years and explored the degree of risk of the research projects behind these papers via contact with the corresponding authors.

We carried out interviews to explore how attitudes towards risk have played out in their work, and to ascertain their opinions on risk-taking in astrobiology. We show the majority of the selected breakthrough results derive from endeavours considered medium- or high-risk, risk is significantly correlated with impact, and most of the discussed projects adopt exploratory approaches.

Overall, the researchers display a distribution of attitudes towards risk from the more cautious to the more audacious, and are divided on the need for more risk-taking in astrobiology. Our findings ultimately support the explicit implementation of a risk-balanced portfolio in astrobiology.

Breakthrough results in astrobiology: is ‘high risk’ research needed?, International Journal of Astrobiology (open access)


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻