The Cost of SETI: Funding and Defunding

"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

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.

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.

SETI Budget
(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 allocation.

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 (JPL).

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 the spare 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

Open SETI SETI's Achievements Progress