SETI Shutters Allen Array Over Funding Shortfall

Sad news for those still expecting that long overdue phone call from the Klingon Empire. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is putting it’s primary research gathering tool into hibernation mode for the time being.

Diminished funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the state of California has shut down the SETI Institute’s search for extraterrestrial life.

The institute has taken its Allen Telescope Array (ATA) offline while it seeks other sources of funding, it said in a letter to donors last week. In operation since 2007, the 42-radio antenna array–housed at the University of California Berkeley Hat Creek Radio Observatory–scans space for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Now NSF funding for the observatory has been cut to one-tenth of its former level, and California’s budgetary woes also have severely affected financial support for it, forcing SETI to send the array into hibernation mode, the institute’s CEO said in an e-mail (PDF) to donors last week.

As much as I like and support SETI, serious fiscal conservatives have to be ready for every expenditure to be on the budget cutting table. Of course, it’s not like we’re talking about a lot of money here. To keep going for the next two years SETI is only looking for five million dollars. (Yes, I know, but we’ve long since stopped being shocked at saying “only” when referring to millions of dollars when talking about the government.)

But they may still find a way through the impasse. SETI has long been working in creative ways to make the program less dependent on the public purse. They’ve raised significant amounts of money from the private sector and will continue to do so. They’ve also broken ground in innovative uses for technology, such as the SETI At Home program where supportive internet users install software on their home computers to harness the power of many small machines in analyzing the data collected.

The program isn’t entirely dead and will maintain some minimal staff to keep up maintenance operations. And if they find a way to wean themselves off the public teat entirely and move forward purely on public support, they may provide a model for other efforts which soon won’t be able to rely on the taxpayer dime.