As if we weren’t already disturbed by the lack of financial support for several of our varied institutions here in the U.S., news has broken that we may have lost another. One of our longstanding endeavors has just come to grinding halt in lieu of deficient funding—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (or “SETI”).
Conducted almost exclusively by the California-based SETI Institute, the high-minded search for life elsewhere is now officially on the back burner, though for how long is anyone’s guess. Simply put, funding for the project is just no longer available, which means that the cost of operating and maintaining the Allen Telescope Array (which is comprised of 42 satellite dishes and used by SETI) can no longer be met. In a statement, the Institute’s CEO confirmed that the array will be put into “hibernation,” undergoing only basic maintenance and upkeep until further funding is acquired. The financial backing they require is short by roughly $5 million or so.
Okay, let’s be clear: there are plenty of larger issues at hand in the world today that require our immediate attention and financial support. While it’s perfectly understandable that necessary funding is now being directed elsewhere (perhaps toward more timely and solvable problems), it’s a little disquieting to think that this may just be the first step on our way to losing sight of our connectedness with the rest of the universe.
Lofty concerns aside, SETI’s undertaking had its practical uses too. One of their senior astronomers (according to a recent article), insists that there is legitimate value in basic technological research and development, contending that “even long before commercial space travel became a thing, NASA was returning an estimated 10 dollars for every dollar that was spent on it ‘simply because of the technology that was developed.’” He contends that even “[c]ancer will probably be cured by the basic research, not the applied research.”
At the end of the day, one has to think that they might have prevented this from happening, had they implemented a more aggressive marketing campaign—or any campaign, for that matter. The Institute’s most acclaimed supporter and champion—Carl Sagan, the famed astrophysicist and cosmologist—passed away in 1996, and the last time SETI enjoyed any measure of public exposure was probably when the movie Contact was still in theaters.
Why, SETI? Why couldn’t you have marketed yourself more effectively to the masses?
Naturally, this setback couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, as NASA’s Kepler telescope recently uncovered over 1,200 possibly Earth-like worlds, drifting quietly in the vastness of space. Now, those worlds will remain unstudied.
At their official site, the SETI Institute is asking for donations. Given that Wikipedia recently met their goal of $16 million in donations, one would hope that SETI can accomplish the same, asking for only $5 million. If the possibility of gathering information about exciting new worlds doesn’t spur the public’s generous spirit, then hopefully the very nature of the Institute’s research and its potential for practical application will.
Do you think the folks at SETI could have prevented funding cuts by marketing their services more aggressively? How can they rally support to achieve their goal?