small logo Editorial

How Can We Get On Board?
by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.

Apparently, there's a SETI Board, and we're not on it. It must have been established while I wasn't paying attention.

Like many of you who are also members of Team SETI, the membership arm of the prestigious SETI Institute in California, I received the Institute's 2005 calendar in the post. Just on the flip-side of its cover is a delightfully concise, one-page history of the 20-year-old Institute. Its third paragraph, discussing the birth in 1960 of modern SETI science, mentions an old friend and esteemed colleague, thus:

"At the same time, Frank Drake, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia and now a SETI board member, conducted the first SETI experiment..."
Well, there's no denying that Dr. Drake performed the first SETI experiment, and in so doing became a pioneer in an important new field of science. But -- SETI board? Well, I knew he was on the Board of Directors of the SETI Institute. In fact, he's also on the Advisory Board of The SETI League, and doubtless a member of numerous other Boards and Committees. But -- SETI board? That was news to me.

We've discussed in past editorials the pervasive nature of SETI science. In dozens of countries around the world, consenting adults practice SETI in the privacy of their own homes. Many of them belong to one or more SETI organizations, of which the SETI Institute and our own SETI League are but two. And as far as I know, each organization that supports SETI science is governed by its own Board. To the best of my recollection, there is no single bureaucratic body regulating SETI across organizational boundaries. In other words, there is no SETI Board!

OK, so what's the big deal here? Surely, every reader (including your faithful reporter) knew exactly what that calendar meant. But, with public confusion about the nature of SETI science already running high, doesn't it behoove us all to say exactly what we mean? SETI is indeed a science, not a single search. So let's all be careful not to imply otherwise.

The SETI Institute has accomplished amazing feats in its twenty year lifetime. They run an incredibly good show. But, competent and accomplished as they are, they are not the whole show. Their Board is not our Board, their research methods are not necessarily our research methods, (their budget is certainly not our budget), and to paraphrase the book of Ruth, their God is not our God.

The very strength of the SETI enterprise lies in its diversity. Nobody knows for sure which particular research methodology will first detect incontrovertible evidence of our cosmic companions, so we try them all. There are enough techniques to encourage participation from a broad range of players. Each has its own organizational structure, support base, mission, and vision. We try to cooperate, we all tend to be mutually supportive, we frequently work together -- and we each guard our autonomy. That, in my opinion, maximizes our collective chances for success, hastening the day of Contact. If one organization called the shots, if one Board directed all the efforts, we would all be diminished through uniformity.

I am very proud of what our colleagues at the SETI Institute have accomplished in the past twenty years. That's why I support them. I'm equally proud of what you, the members of The SETI League, have accomplished in the past ten years. That's why I continue to support you. That we have different corporate cultures is a good thing. That we have common goals is a given. That we have no single Board is a blessing.

SETI is an enterprise of the many. I'm glad we're a part of it. The fact is, The SETI League is very much onboard. We're just not on the SETI Board. Because there is none.

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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