The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Needs Our Support: Could Marketing Have Prevented Funding Cuts?

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”).

''Don't let them shut me down.''

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.

Technology has to start somewhere.

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.

...which is a shame, because extraterrestrial beings are probably just like us.

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?

Joseph Giorgi

Joseph is the head of the Media Team at Quality Logo Products. He's a video specialist, blogger, perfectionist, and all-around likeable guy. When he's not busy focusing on the nitty-gritty details of his written and visual work, he's normally listening to bad 80s music and scouring the internet for useless information on useless subjects. You can also connect with Joe on Google+.


  1. Peemo

    I’m all for cutting spending where we can and the cynic in me says this was an easy cut. The dreamer in me though wishes not only for this to continue but for it to find ANYTHING that would prove what it set out to prove.

    I guess it’s all moot. Saturday is The Rapture and I’ll be too busy surviving to worry about E.T.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      My sentiments exactly, Peemo. I guess there’s just no place for us dreamers anymore. 🙁

  2. Scooby DOO!

    I’ll tell you what, if there’s a Groupon to go play with those satellites while they are in hibernation, I am IN. E.T. PHONE HOME! 😉

  3. cyberneticSAM

    I think they would have gotten better funding if Carl Sagan was their spokesperson. He is no longer with us, but with their technology, they could have come up with something. I don’t believe he is really gone; he lives on the desolate sands of Mars…..

    • Joseph Giorgi

      “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

      • JPorretto

        That is BRILLIANT!!

      • cyberneticSAM

        Your comment has made me all giggle-house and I can’t seem to stop! 🙂

  4. Juliette

    I’d been worried about the Allen Array for awhile now. These days it seems like most of the world is more focused on internal issues rather than looking for life and possible chances to colonize on other planets. And Contact was great for stirring up interest for a bit but you’re right, they really need to do more than just ask for donation on their page. Have they ever done much with promo products for their cause? I mean, that seems like a great resource they’ve never (or rarely tapped). I’d gladly hand over cash for t-shirts and such. And I’d be first in line to offer to hand out products to bring more awareness to their research.

    Though if the world ends tomorrow (or at least begins five months of torment) it might be a moot point. 😉

    • Joseph Giorgi

      It’s really too bad that such amazing technology is going to waste now. They really should have been making more of an effort to promote their cause when they were still being funded. Sadly, they probably can’t even afford to advertise any longer.

      That’s a great point though. I wonder if SETI ever really used promotional products to their full advantage. “Alien”-shaped stress balls and themed T-shirts would have been amazing giveaways! The possibility of marketing themselves more effectively was definitely there. Heck, they could have at least made the public more aware of their findings. I didn’t even read about their discovery of over 1,200 possibly Earth-like planets until after I read about their defunding. In a way, this is sort of a cautionary tale. The lesson? Always promote yourself!

      In any case, yes, it seems like the Rapture is certainly going to put things into perspective. 😉

      • Jana Quinn

        I think that using little green men themed promotional products may have trivialized their cause rather than empower it. If they want to be taken seriously as a scientific research institution rather than having people wanting to cut funding on the X-Files, they need to appeal to the successful application of technology they’re using/inventing on current problems.

        Getting funding from large research-based or at least scientifically-affiliated institutions would have been the route. Offering internships to students could also have increased awareness and perhaps have partnered them with universities who may have been in a position to help them out.

  5. JPorretto

    I understand the need for budget cuts in general. But I’d hate for it to come at the expense of exploration. Once we stop exploring we become stagnant, and it’s all downhill from there….

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Exactly! We can’t lost sight of the bigger picture. And our place in the universe is the biggest picture of all!

  6. Jana Quinn

    I think SETI’s best argument comes from this:

    “I think it would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that SETI enterprise is going to create vast new markets,” Shostak tells Fast Company. “But there is this: the kind of tech that is developed for SETI, these antenna arrays, monitor 100 million channels simultaneously. There’s no commercial application for that now, but the lesson of history is that whenever you develop a new technical capability, you often find an interesting market for it.”

    Very little science and technology comes from someone saying, “Ah, just as I planned and expected!” More often, it comes from, “What the hell…?”

    Ordinary kitchen microwaves came out of weapons technology research, and NASA invented memory foam (but NOT velcro, as is commonly and incorrectly claimed).

    Spinoff makes a pretty solid case for NASA here:

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Very true. The practical and technological applications for the kind of research that SETI conducted may never come to fruition now, thanks to their loss of funding. It really is too bad. 🙁 Hopefully they’ll be back in full operation sooner or later.

      I had no idea that microwave technology was an offshoot of weapons development. That’s so cool!

      And NASA made memory foam? Well, I guess I have them to thank for making my nightly slumber such a pleasant experience. 🙂

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