Last spring I received a distressed email from one of my old university physics contacts. The SETI Institute was temporarily shutting down operations. They were out of money. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was on hold.
In the 28 years since its first incorporation as a not-for-profit, the SETI Institute has always been a hand-to-mouth operation. Working on a shoestring budget, the scientists at SETI had to rely on rented telescope and computer time from other observatories for its first two decades, doing as much as they could in a given year with the money they had. Though the Institute was able to return to the search before Christmas, presently there’s only enough cash to cover the next few months.
Yet there’s never been a better time to be searching for alien life. Finding planets around distant stars has long been one of the Holy Grails of astronomy. By the late ’90s, only a few dozen suspected exoplanets had been logged; invisible at this distance, their existence could only be inferred by small gravitational tugs on their parent stars. But in the last two or three years, with improved equipment and techniques, planetary discovery has exploded. The current count is over 700, including some of the first confirmed Earth-like planets; what used to be a pipe-dream has now become an almost daily occurrence.
And the relevance of this work hasn’t been lost on the SETI crew. The Institute’s director, Dr. Jill Tarter exclaimed at a recent conference, “We’re not just pointing at stars. We’re pointing where you’ve shown us there are planets, and perhaps technologists.”
But funding continues to be the organization’s Achilles’ Heel. This despite many high profile advocates in the past. Carl Sagan, long-time NASA consultant, and creator and host of the enormously popular Cosmos TV series, was an early and long-time SETI supporter. During the first decade of its existence, when the SETI Institute actually received some public funding, it was Sagan who publicly defended the project against budget-slashing politicians. Nevertheless, by 1993, government funding was cut, and SETI has relied on private contributors ever since.
Though fictional, the film Contact, also written by Sagan, gives a good idea of the day-to-day science of the real SETI, the hostile attitudes of its political opponents, and the constant struggles for funding. The hero of the movie, Elly Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), is at least partly based on the real Dr. Tarter.
In the film, the SETI project loses its government funding, and is eventually rescued by an eccentric but wealthy benefactor. Perhaps life imitates art, at least to an extent, because years after Contact‘s release, the real-life SETI scientists received their very own array of radio telescopes. Their wealthy benefactor was Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The Allen Array is the first set of radio telescopes built for the exclusive use of SETI research, and began operations in 2007.
Though I wonder if this windfall is part of the current funding problems. When the Institute was borrowing time and equipment from existing institutions, they could limit their actual operating hours to what their yearly budget could support. With their own array and observatory, basic operations have a set daily cost.
The Institute is searching for financial solutions, and for a start will be leasing use of its equipment to the US Air Force, for use in satellite tracking. In turn, military funding will cover some of the operational costs, including employee salaries. But it’s not enough. Without more funding, the Allen Array will spend more of its time doing military work than looking for life in the stars, since there will only be enough money to run the SETI program for a small portion of the year.
What they could use, in an ideal world, is another big league sponsor. Allen provided $25 million towards the building of the array, which is nevertheless incomplete according to the original design. No one is presently lining up with the next big donation. It seems a certain kind of person supports this kind of work, someone who is enamored by big ideas and willing to put their money where their mouth is, and that kind of person is also rare.
In the immediate future, though, the SETI Institute just wants to stay open, and needs a more modest amount for its operating costs. There’s a recession and we’re all tightening our belts, but if you’re one of those “big ideas” people, you can visit the SETI website to become an ongoing sponsor, make a one-time donation, or, if you’re thinking that far ahead, leave a bequest in your will. If enough of us chip in, it might just show that there’s still a sense of wonder in the world.
Photo credit: NASA