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Ethical considerations for analogue fieldwork in extreme environments


Recent movements towards decolonizing the university and promoting racial justice and equality in social relations have highlighted and challenged the colonial influences on contemporary science and scientific knowledge production. These colonial legacies have a direct bearing on power relations between the Global North and the Global South, as well as collaborations and partnerships with local scholars and local communities. Astrobiology is one scholarly discipline that often makes use of remote sites in the Global South. Here we examine the ethical implications of carrying out fieldwork that involves accessing and sampling these extreme environments. Experiences of local and international collaborations in these sites have highlighted the importance of co-learning when engaging with diverse communities of scientists and right holders living on and around field sites. We argue that adopting an ethical approach to research in these environments is relevant also to research on other celestial bodies and to the future of space exploration. We propose that understanding space and Earth as interconnected domains, mutually shaped by scientific theories and practices, calls for a new terminology: ‘planetary ethics’, which places attention on this interconnection.

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Fig. 1: Fieldwork in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.

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We thank the research group AstrobiologyOU, funded by Research England’s grant ‘Expanding Excellence in England’ 124.18, for enabling and fostering conversations about ethics. A.M., S.B. and K.O.-F. are core members of AstrobiologyOU and have been funded by this grant. Some of the collaborations described were supported by Europlanet 2024 RI (this project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 871149). F.J.G. funding: Project PIP11220200102042CO. A.A.-B. thanks the support of the Human Frontiers Science Program grant no. RGY0066/2018 and European Research Council Consolidator Grant no. 818602.

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This paper was conceived and completed collaboratively by the authors. The ideas were workshopped and refined through collective meetings and asynchronous conversations. All authors were equally part of this collective production and have reviewed the paper in several phases. Their knowledge and effort in providing testimonies of their experience and reflections have been acknowledged through collective authorship.

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Correspondence to Alessandra Marino.

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Nature Astronomy thanks Dana Burton, Melissa Kirven-Brooks and Monica Vidaurri for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Marino, A., Franchi, F., Lebogang, L. et al. Ethical considerations for analogue fieldwork in extreme environments. Nat Astron 7, 1031–1036 (2023).

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