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Breakthrough results in astrobiology: is ‘high risk’ research needed?

Jeancolas, Cyrille; Gillen, Cat; McMahon, Sean; Ward, Martin; Vickers, Peter John

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Cat Gillen

Sean McMahon


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.


Jeancolas, C., Gillen, C., McMahon, S., Ward, M., & Vickers, P. J. (2023). Breakthrough results in astrobiology: is ‘high risk’ research needed?. International Journal of Astrobiology,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 1, 2023
Online Publication Date Nov 6, 2023
Publication Date 2023
Deposit Date Nov 10, 2023
Publicly Available Date Nov 10, 2023
Journal International Journal of Astrobiology
Print ISSN 1473-5504
Electronic ISSN 1475-3006
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Keywords Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous); Space and Planetary Science; Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous); Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
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Published Journal Article (Advance Online Version) (336 Kb)


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Copyright Statement
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited. Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press

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