The discovery of extraterrestrial life can be classified as a low probability, high impact event. Since we don’t have any empirical data to help us assess the consequences of ET contact, governments are largely unequipped to deal with the potential hazards it could pose. In recognition of the impact that such an event would have on society, a number of international organisations have developed post-contact protocols to assist decision-making and establish a plan of action before such a chaotic event takes place.
The current protocols suffer from a number of problems and could be improved. The majority have been drafted by scientists, often working in a very specific domain of space exploration (radio astronomy). Protocols that focus on specific methods of detection might be useless if detection happens using a different method (for example by amateur astronomers). Also, because they are written by scientists, these plans often take a naive view of government, or do not provide advice that would be useful to governing organisations. Finally, these protocols are almost unanimously composed by international associations, offering an idealised and unrealistic perspective on geopolitical struggles that would inevitably ensue in the wake of discovery.
The most widely-cited set of protocols are the “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, drafted by The International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) in 1989. The IAA is an international community of scientific experts recognised by the United Nations, tasked with advising governments and space agencies on policy and scientific matters related to exploration of outer space. The IAA protocols have been endorsed by a number of international scientific societies and also constitute an informal agreement among most of those carrying out SETI. The specific protocols are as follows:
1) Any individual, public or private research institution, or governmental agency that believes it has detected a signal from or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (the discoverer) should seek to verify that the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural phenomenon or anthropogenic phenomenon before making any public announcement.
2) Prior to making a public announcement that evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence has been detected, the discoverer should promptly inform all other observers or research organizations that are parties to this declaration, so that those other parties may seek to confirm the discovery by independent observations at other sites and so that a network can be established to enable continuous monitoring of the signal or phenomenon. Parties to this declaration should not make any public announcement of this information until it is determined whether this information is or is not credible evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The discoverer should inform his/her or its relevant national authorities.
3) After concluding that the discovery appears to be credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and after informing other parties to this declaration, the discoverer should inform observers throughout the world through the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of the International Astronomical Union, and should inform the Secretary General of the United Nations in accordance with Article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies. Because of their demonstrated interest in and expertise concerning the question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the discoverer should simultaneously inform the following international institutions of the discovery and should provide them with all pertinent data and recorded information concerning the evidence: the International Telecommunication Union, the Committee on Space Research, of the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, the International Institute of Space Law, Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union and Commission J of the International Radio Science Union.
4) A confirmed detection of extraterrestrial intelligence should be disseminated promptly, openly, and widely through scientific channels and public media, observing the procedures in this declaration. The discoverer should have the privilege of making the first public announcement.
5) All data necessary for confirmation of detection should be made available to the international scientific community through publications, meetings, conferences, and other appropriate means.
6) The discovery should be confirmed and monitored and any data bearing on the evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be recorded and stored permanently to the greatest extent feasible and practicable, in a form that will make it available for further analysis and interpretation. These recordings should be made available to the international institutions listed above and to members of the scientific community for further objective analysis and interpretation.
7) If the evidence of detection is in the form of electromagnetic signals, the parties to this declaration should seek international agreement to protect the appropriate frequencies by exercising procedures available through the International Telecommunication Union. Immediate notice should be sent to the Secretary General of the ITU in Geneva, who may include a request to minimize transmissions on the relevant frequencies in the Weekly Circular.
8) No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.
9) The SETI Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, in coordination with Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union, will conduct a continuing review of procedures for the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence and the subsequent handling of the data. Should credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence be discovered, an international committee of scientists and other experts should be established to serve as a focal point for continuing analysis of all observational evidence collected in the aftermath of the discovery, and also to provide advice on the release of information to the public. This committee should be constituted from representatives of each of the international institutions listed above and such other members as the committee may deem necessary.
The IAA protocols seem to be mainly concerned with internal management of the scientific community in the wake of a contact event, rather than with the impact on society. The drafters want to ensure that data are carefully validated and peer-reviewed. They further want to compel signatories to agree to share their data and to archive results in a reliable and accessible way. Only once the science is sound, should any discovery be disclosed to the public.
Of course in reality, none of these points may turn out to be realistic. Firstly, we already see evidence that scientists already have difficulty holding back from making groundbreaking claims before they are properly reviewed and validated. Secondly, because of fierce competition for funding and recognition in the scientific field, it is highly unlikely that any individual or group would want to share credit for a discovery with the international community. Nor would they be eager to share raw data with others before having published them in peer-reviewed academic journals.
By taking an idealised view of both geopolitics and the scientific profession, the IAA protocols may not turn out to be very helpful at all. We need to develop new protocols that are intended to help governments and individuals deal with the chaotic, mad scramble that would undoubtedly follow an unanticipated detection.