small logo Editorial

A Bold Step into the Bank Vault
by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.
(speaking as a private SETIzen)

Because what I am about to say is controversial, and likely to be highly unpopular, let me make one thing clear at the outset: these thoughts are mine alone. I am not speaking for The SETI League, its Trustees, members, sponsors, donors, or supporters. Wait a minute while I take off my Executive Director's hat…

There, now I'm just an ordinary SETIzen, like the rest of you, and free to speak my mind - like the rest of you.

I've just read something mildly disturbing on the first page of Volume 13, Number 1 of SETI Institute News. Perhaps you read it too. Perhaps you were also disturbed. In an article titled "A Bold Step into the Future," our friends in Mountain View stated:

"To carry forth its mission over the next five years, the SETI Institute is seeking to raise, from a variety of public and private sources, a total of $62 million dollars in support."

Now, I'm normally delighted to encourage, support, and contribute to the fundraising efforts of our professional colleagues in California. After all, they have been doing the most ambitious and definitive search for ETI to be carried out since NASA's SETI funding was terminated a dozen years ago. And when they announced their Team SETI membership branch, I was one of the first to sign up. But… $62 million? It gives one pause. That's over $12 million a year - on a par with the NASA SETI budget that Congress terminated in 1993. And that, to this Team SETI member, is a cause for concern.

The whole argument for privatized SETI hinges on the proposition that individuals can do science better, and cheaper, than governments -- that by dispensing with bureaucracy, we can apply more of our limited resources to science, and less to overhead. That philosophy served the SETI Institute (and, dare I say, The SETI League?) rather well for the past decade. But now, privatized SETI has finally exceeded the budget of our Government-funded forebears. And we started off so well! Where, exactly, did we go wrong?

Perhaps it's that we're trying to do too much. After all, when NASA SETI was cancelled, the SETI Institute chose one specific prong -- the targeted search - to resurrect under the Project Phoenix banner. And they were doing so on a fraction of what NASA was spending. So, logically, The SETI League chose to resurrect the other half of NASA SETI, the all-sky survey, on an even smaller fraction. Privatized SETI seemed to make sense then.

It still does, if we don't let ourselves be drawn too far afield. But now the very SETI scientists whose talents and dedication have long inspired us are branching out. They are, as mentioned in that same article, "probing the chemical pathways critical to life on early Earth and Mars, exploring the molecular traces microbial life might leave on the icy surface of Europa, and seeking novel biosignatures… measuring the 92-cm line of deuterium… measuring dark matter in dwarf galaxies… transitions of heavy molecules in the interstellar gas." And, they are now hard at work building The World's Greatest Radio Telescope. No wonder they need $62 million!

And what aren't they doing? At the moment, they aren't doing any microwave SETI observations. Pity. I thought that's what they were all about. Perhaps I was wrong.

Sacrilege! There's long been an unwritten rule that no SETI organization should ever criticize the efforts of another, lest we cast a public pall over all of us. And I've just broken that rule (but as an individual, remember?) Am I not afraid that, as a result, the public will think less of (and be less likely to support) all SETI efforts, including our own?

Actually, that's already happening, and not because the SETI Institute's programs are not worthy. The problem stems from a persistent public perception that SETI is some single monolithic organization. That's not particularly the fault of the SETI Institute, but it is a reality with which they too have to contend. So, what they choose to do, to raise, and to spend reflects on us all. I hear it whenever I try to raise funds for a SETI League project: "why are you asking me for money, when Paul Allen just gave you millions?" I hear it whenever I encourage individuals to get personally involved in our research: "I'm already letting you use my computer -- you should be paying me!" And I hear it whenever I urge our elected officials to consider renewing public support of SETI: "Why would you want that? You guys are doing so well on your own…"

Well, frankly, we're not. And if you should happen to feel my motives are suspect, my viewpoint less than totally objective, let me wholeheartedly agree. Yes, I'm jealous of the funding apparently available to others but denied to us. Yes, it frustrates me that, while tens of millions of dollars are being poured into the Allen Telescope Array, we can't seem to raise the piddling twenty thousand needed to finish the Very Small Array prototype, which many of you so generously helped us to start four years ago. And yes, sour grapes do indeed go best with a grain of salt.

But aren't you frustrated too, just a little?

So, what would I urge our colleagues in California to do? Redouble their true SETI efforts, even if at the expense of some other worthy projects. Let others do the continuum radio astronomy, or the life-in-the-universe studies, or the school curricula, or the searches for organic molecules, or the studies of fossilized bacteria. Maybe even let others build The World's Greatest Radio Telescope, and then go to them and rent time on it. In other words, become a lean and efficient SETI Institute once again, not an Astrobiology Institute. NASA already has one of those, and it costs - millions. I would be the first Team SETI member to raise a glass in salute of a refocused effort, once more emphasizing observational SETI.

Or, maybe I'm looking at this all wrong. Perhaps we should see the desire of the SETI Institute to broaden its scope as a golden opportunity for The SETI League. After all they, for whatever reason, aren't doing observational microwave SETI at the moment. We, with our 127 operational Project Argus stations, are. So The SETI League has, for now, a chance to differentiate itself, as a major observational arm of the SETI community. What we should be striving for, above all else, is to be recognized as worthy partners in a bold adventure.

There - now that I've gotten that off my chest, I can put my SETI League director's hat back on, and…

Say, who is this guy who dares to speak out against another SETI enterprise?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.


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