NASA UFO panel says stigma, lack of data are problems when studying 'unidentified aerial phenomena'
Current data collection efforts fragmented across various agencies, panellist says
The first public meeting of a NASA panel studying what the government calls "unidentified aerial phenomena," commonly known as UFOs, kicked off on Wednesday to discuss findings since its formation last year.
The 16-member body, assembling experts from fields ranging from physics to astrobiology, was formed last June to examine unclassified UFO sightings, which it refers to as UAPs, and other data collected from civilian government and commercial sectors.
"If I were to summarize in one line what I feel we've learned, it's we need high quality data," said panel chair David Spergel during opening remarks.
NASA said the focus of Wednesday's four-hour public session at the agency's headquarters in Washington was to hold "final deliberations" before the team publishes a report, which Spergel said was planned for release by late July.
The team has "several months of work ahead of them," said Dan Evans, a senior research official at NASA's science unit, adding that panel members had been subjected to online abuse and harassment since they began their work.
"Harassment only leads to further stigmatization of the UAP field, significantly hindering the scientific process and discouraging others to study this important subject matter," NASA's science chief Nicola Fox said during her opening remarks.
Stigma surrounding UAP reporting
Karlin Toner, an aerospace engineer and senior adviser for data policy integration at the Federal Aviation Administration, talked about the stigma associated with researching and reporting UAPs and said there are still barriers for people to report sightings, as they wonder, "will they be believed, or will they be shamed," or whether someone will take action.
"We've heard over the course of our fact-finding that many scientists and aviators consider the study of UAPs to be fringe, at best," Toner said.
"So this suggests a significant negative stigma associated with reporting or even researching such phenomenon. That said, by encouraging military aviators to disclose anomalies that they've seen or detected, the Department of Defence is receiving many more reports."
After the discussion, panel members took questions from the public, which numbered in the hundreds, a NASA media official said. Many wanted to know what the panel is doing to fight the stigmatization surrounding the study of UAPs.
"I think the fact that NASA has called us together here as a panel to look into this, that NASA is hosting a public meeting, that we've heard, clearly stated, we're here to be transparent — I think that's the first step in trying to really normalize the study of UAPs," Toner said.
Transparency, openness key to mission
The panel represents the first such inquiry ever conducted under the auspices of the U.S. space agency for a subject the government once consigned to the exclusive and secretive purview of military and national security officials.
"Transparency, openness and scientific integrity are pinnacle to NASA's mission," Fox said in her opening remarks on Wednesday.
The NASA study is separate from a newly formalized Pentagon-based investigation of unidentified aerial phenomena documented in recent years by military aviators and analyzed by U.S. defence and intelligence officials.
Panel officials on Wednesday, having relied on unclassified data sensors, indicated they have run into much of the same obstacles as their Pentagon counterparts in studying unidentified objects.
"The current data collection efforts about UAPs are unsystematic and fragmented across various agencies, often using instruments uncalibrated for scientific data collection," Spergel said.
The parallel NASA and Pentagon efforts, both undertaken with some semblance of public scrutiny, highlight a turning point for the government after decades spent deflecting, debunking and discrediting sightings of unidentified flying objects — long associated with notions of flying saucers and aliens — dating back to the 1940s.
NASA not leaping to conclusions
While NASA's science mission was seen by some as promising a more open-minded approach to the topic, the U.S. space agency made it known from the start that it was not leaping to any conclusions.
"There is no evidence UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin," NASA said in announcing the panel's formation last June.
U.S. defence officials have said the Pentagon's recent push to investigate such sightings has led to hundreds of new reports now under examination, though most remain categorized as unexplained.
The head of the Pentagon's newly formed All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office has said the existence of intelligent alien life has not been ruled out, but that no sighting had produced evidence of extraterrestrial origins.
With files from CBC News