- A large cooperative of UK scientists from universities and research institutions has teamed up to ask the UK government to restore aliens to a national agenda. Ever since SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) lost its US government funding in 1995, the world has lacked a real government-backed effort to find intelligent life in the universe. This proposed project, under the guidance of the UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN), would use the equivalent of $2.25 million per year to buy time on radio telescopes and processor clouds to search the universe for arguably the greatest discovery possible.
Now, SETI lost its funding for a reason. UKSRN coordinator Alan Penny said that just half of a percent of the current UK astronomical budget could make them competitive with the modern, privately-funded American SETI, but that standard is actually quite low. The fact is that high-level, speculative astronomy of the sort needed to find intelligent life isexpensive, and it has absolutely no timeline for achievement.
The search for intelligent extraterrestrial life really is one of the best ever examples of how the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; in the vastness of the universe, simply not finding signs of alien civilization does not mean that those civilizations do not exist. So when Penny says that he’s desperate to find out if there are aliens out there, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that any such search could go on indefinitely and still be totally valid. SETI has conditions for success, but none for failure.
The team will have a tough battle ahead of them, as the UK’s astronomy and science arms struggle for funding of their own, and often make terribly difficult decisions between extremely worthy petitioners. When faced with dwindling public support and the prospect of denying funding to hard science initiatives with concrete and achievable goals, it will be difficult to justify funding a search for signals that may not be there at all, and the absence of which can never be determined.
On the other hand, last month’s Lone Signal project proves that there is still significant public interest in the prospect of intelligent alien life. The crowd-funded SETI initiative charges anywhere from $0.25 to $18 to broadcast personal messages at potentially habitable star systems. While that may be an enormous monetary investment, the fledgling project’s tentative success is still an indication that a large portion of people do see the potentially world-shaking importance of contact with alien life. Such a discovery would change virtually everything we know about the universe — and isn’t that worth funding?
SETI in the US currently gets its work done entirely through private donations and an ingenious work-distribution cloud known as SETI@home. At one time, SETI@home was the single largest distributed computing network — in fact, SETI was at the forefront of developing the practice of distributed computation in the first place. Their work has let thousands of science and alien enthusiasts lend a portion of their personal computing power to the effort. One wonders whether UKSRN might be better served by pursuing such an option than buying time on existing processing clouds; what alien-hunters lack in hard credibility and profitability, they more than make up for in generalized public goodwill. That might well be the greatest resource at their disposal.
The teams at SETI and its foreign siblings potentially have the greatest “I told you so” moment in human history coming to them. With or without public funding, even the slightest piece of confirmed evidence in favor of their thesis will not just put their critics to rest — it will vindicate multiple generations of scientists and analysts who dedicated their lives to something many see as frivolous.
It may be naive to think that in this day and age, a major world power could be convinced to support an effort like that, but in retrospect it may very well look naive to have ever considered refusing.