Culture

Astronomers Want Taxpayer Money to Search for Intelligent Life

Anybody out there still alive? (NASA via AP)

Several prominent astronomers say it’s time to welcome the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as a mainstream scientific discipline, worthy of serious study — and public funding.

Except for a very brief period in the 1990s when Congress allocated $10 million for the search, SETI has been privately funded. The science was just too experimental. Even though success would mean the most profound discovery in scientific history and probably change humanity, there have been too many question marks about the way we’ve been searching and the chances of a breakthrough have not appeared good.

Besides, in the competition for public funds in the scientific community, SETI was definitely the red-headed stepchild. This was a wise decision given the incredible astronomical discoveries of the last 30 years.

But this is apparently changing. The most powerful ground-based telescope in the world is about to be enlisted in the search. The Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes in New Mexico will be engaged in the search for the first time. And there may be a sea change among traditional scientists to accept the search for intelligent life as an important field of research.

BBC:

Dr Anthony Beasley told the BBC that there should be greater government support for a field that has been shunned by government research funders for decades.

His backing for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (Seti) marks a sea change in attitudes to a field regarded until recently as fringe science.

Dr Beasley made his comments at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle.

The director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville in Virginia said that it was now “time for Seti to come in from the cold and be properly integrated to all other areas of astronomy”.

Employing the VLA in the search is huge and grants instant scientific credibility to the effort, not to mention it makes the prospect of success more likely — perhaps by as much as an order of magnitude.

According to Dr Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley’s Seti Research Centre, the incorporation of the VLA would increase the chances of finding intelligent life by “10- or even 100-fold”.

“We are now set for the most comprehensive all-sky survey [for extra-terrestrial intelligence] that has ever been accomplished,” he told the BBC.

It’s ironic that using the VLA in the SETI search mirrors how ET was discovered in the movie Contact.  

Ironic, but still almost certainly futile. And expensive.

The UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor Lord Rees, is the chair of the organisation’s international advisory group. He told the BBC that, given that the multi-billion pound Large Hadron Collider had not yet achieved its aim of finding sub-atomic particles beyond the current theory of physics, governments should consider modest funding of a few million pounds for Seti.

“I’d feel far more confident arguing the case for Seti than for a particle accelerator,” he said.

SETI astronomers need funding to buy telescope time, and continuously upgrade their hardware. Researching new approaches to finding intelligent life is also required.

There would be nothing “modest” about that level of funding.

I think the British scientist is correct. SETI should receive about as much funding as any other highly experimental science with unknown outcomes. Until they can provide a proof of concept, Congress should mostly steer clear.