UFOs and abductions would have to be garbage. If there were more to it than that, it would imply, in the words of Charles Fort, that somebody owns us. And that would be the most important topic bar none, an issue demanding to be understood and resolved, a security and geopolitical problem of the very first order, and a life-or-death matter for the entire human culture.
"All this UFO, alien abduction garbage attached to SETI [is] what makes money, what people find sexy," she says. "But the real SETI is a valid scientific exploration."49
- Dr. Jill Tarter
Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI
The SETI Institute
For the SETI community to recognize this and adopt a serious posture with respect to it, would be an act of the highest courage, vision, and responsibility.
But to SETI, which calls itself the valid scientific exploration, it's garbage, which is one reason why in the view of Open SETI, the SETI program has failed.
In the popular conception, SETI is a national space program
that spends untold millions if not billions of taxpayer dollars on a high-tech
search for "little green men", while most major social problems on
earth go unsolved and social needs go unsupported.
This conception does not do justice to the actual situation. One needs to look at some facts.
(Click to expand)
In the first place, SETI has not been a national program
for most of its history, and is not one now, in that it is not being operated
or supported by the US government. No doubt there are federal grants for some educational and outreach programs but this does not mean taxpayer money is spent to perform SETI searches.
Most SETI experiments have been conducted at university-operated
radio observatories and supported by such piecemeal grants as could be
found for them or by internal slush funds or excess dollars out of other
budgets. In other words, they have been operated much as any scientific
observing program would be, that did not enjoy a line-item federal budget
For years, NASA's SETI program was funded in that way
-- out of discretionary slush funds. Perhaps it would have been better to
keep SETI on that basis, because each time serious funding was granted
by Congress, it initiated a disruptive process characterized by gearing
up, national spotlight, backlash, and premature termination.
SETI was a kind of lightning rod for America's unhappiness
about its social conditions. The programs themselves were always modest
in their cost. Even the officially-funded ones were slated to spend only
a few million dollars per year. Everyone knows you can't buy very much
with that kind of money - either in social welfare, education, or infrastructure.
Yet when presented with images of what these dollars would purchase in terms
of large radiotelescopes searching the skies for extraterrestrial civilizations,
people were easily persuaded that this was a luxury,
given the broad spectrum of society's crucial needs. It is probably the
high visibility and the exotic nature of SETI that make it such an attractive
target for congressional demagogues wishing to score points by showing
how they were cutting out useless government projects.
This happened on two occasions. In 1979, a NASA proposal
for a funded SETI program was endorsed by the Subcommittee on Space Science
and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology (US
Congress, 1979), only to have the House and Senate Appropriations Committees
elect not to fund the program after it received one of Senator William
Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards for "unnecessary expenditures in the Federal
Government" (Dick, 1993).
In 1983, after Carl Sagan evidently persuaded Senator
Proxmire of the merits of the program, congress funded SETI at the level
of $1.5 million per year. With additional NASA monies the total budget at that time was closer to $2 million. This permitted the development of a high-resolution
multi-channel spectrum analyzer (MCSA) for a targeted search to be carried
out by NASA Ames Research Center, and a wide band spectrum analyzer (WBSA)
for an all-sky survey to be conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
In 1992 the systems were brought online and observing
was initiated, using the 305-meter radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico,
and the 34-meter "Venus" station of the Deep Space Communications Complex
in the Mohave Desert. The program seemed to be moving into high gear with
expanded and upgraded organizational structures at both NASA Ames and JPL.
However, Congress abruptly terminated the project in that year.
But this did not spell the end of SETI. The SETI Institute, a private organization operating with generous
contributions from industrialists, was able to sponsor the NASA portion of the terminated program - the targeted search. The SETI Institute has been the recipient of a number of government and private grants supporting specific research and educational programs.
Another prominent SETI progam, SETI@home, operated by the University of California at Berkeley and discussed elsewhere in these pages, found a formula that appealed to large numbers of enthusiasts. SETI@home enlisted their support and
processing time of their computers in a high-profile effort to continue the search for monochromatic microwave signals. An
alliance of corporate, private, academic, and other nonprofit interests coalesced around the SETI@home project.
SETI@home has not fared well in the post-tech-crash economic climate. See for example Funding crisis threatens SETI@home
In 2000 the Paul Allen Foundation and Nathan Myhrvold seeded the Allen Telescope Array, a $12.5 million high-tech interferometric radiotelescope for SETI to be constructed at U.C. Berkeley's Hat Creek Radio Observatory. The total cost of the completed system and facilities is estimated at $26 million. As of mid-2003 no financing had been found for the remaining $13.5 million. (See SETI's Call for Cash.)
In March 2004, the Paul Allen Foundation established a challenge grant of the needed $13.5 million.
The SETI Institute has submitted (2004) a proposal to the National Science Foundation asking for $32 million over a 5-year period to support the Allen Telescope Array.
In the final chapter of his After Contact (1997), Albert Harrison devotes two sections ("Search without End?" and "Building Support for SETI") to the problem of maintaining society's interest in pursuing SETI as generation after generation pass by without any sign of being rewarded with success.
Harrison outlines strategies for persuading people in the "corridor of indifference", and cultivating interest in such target groups as media personnel, opinion leaders, and children, making sure that our schools produce "dreamers who are comfortable with the theoretical and who are willing to wait for positive results". (They have been waiting and are going to have to continue waiting for a very long time.)
Harrison's suggestions are reasonable, given the general indifference of society to the SETI program and its prospects. But he, like the SETI community as a whole, misses the real problem: people are heartsick at being deprived of their heritage as human citizens of the cosmos. Their ancestors knew something at least of the community from which they came, its greatness and its dangers, and the grand adventure of which they were a part.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself. If you are reading these pages in the order of the Table of Contents, stand by for some very unusual and important information. At this point in our discussion, having more or less deconstructed the SETI program and its very poor prospects for success in its current form, we turn our attention to a new conception of SETI, beginning with a world view more in keeping with the evidence that is of interest to Open SETI.
NSF Proposal: A Technology Development Project for the Large-N/Small-D Square Kilometer Array Concept