SETI, money, and the media

“Have you seen our SETI funding news and want to know how you can help?” TAKE ACTION NOW!”

The SETI Institute is blaring this message in a big red box at the top of its home page.

That’s subtle….

But the SETI Institute’s publicity/fund-raising strategy has never been subtle. And the mass media have taken the bait, aiding and abetting the SETI Institute’s relentless drive for money.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard or read too many stories to count about the shutdown of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence project run by the SETI Institute at the Allen Telescope Array. They’re all pretty much the same: National Public Radio, Time magazine, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, Popular Science, Forbes, Slate, Wired News (many reports are on blogs), even the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  TED Prize Director Amy Novogratz (SETI chief scientist Jill Tarter is a Ted Prize holder) and SETI Institute spokesperson/astronomer Seth Shostak have alerted readers to the crisis on the Huffington Post.

What’s the story? In an April 22 email to Allen Telescope Array donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson reported “the recent decision by U.C. Berkeley, our partner in the Array, to reduce operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (and thus the Allen Telescope Array) to a hibernation state…. NSF University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley for HCRO operations has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former level and, concurrently, growing State of California budget shortfalls have severely reduced the amount of state funds available for support of the HCRO site.”

Such developments are not unusual in these times of budgetary crises. For instance, in a May 18 policy alert, The American Association for the Advancement of Science reported, “National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins testified before the Senate Appropriations panel with jurisdiction over NIH last week and projected that the success rate for grant applications would reach a historic low in FY 2011 — around 17 or 18%.”

Who knows what other news we’re missing as the SETI story takes up time and space?

The SETI Institute is a nonprofit corporation comprising two research centers – the Center for SETI Research, supported by private donations; and the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, whose researchers are funded primarily by grants from NASA’s Astrobiology Program and the National Science Foundation (NSF) – and a Center for Education and Public Outreach.

Any scientific research organization that engages in outreach may reasonably be suspected of fund-raising in the guise of public education – even federal agencies…. The SETI Institute’s efforts, however, are particularly pertinacious. (I’ve watched them up close and from afar, as I was affiliated with the SETI Institute for several years, not too long ago).

Give the Institute some money and you can join Team SETI! (Among member benefits: 10% off at the SETI Store….) Give the Institute some more money and you can attend SETICon! (Kind of like a ComicCon, SETICon, put on by the Institute last August in California, was billed as “the First-Ever Public Convention Focused on the Search for Life in the Universe in Science Fact and Science Fiction.”) Give the Institute an additional chunk of change and you can get some face time with Famous People at the ‘Con. (The Institute says it’s already planning SETICon II.)

Some of the scientists who spoke about their research at SETICon were/are funded by federal grants. I wonder about the fairness of charging people money to listen to government funded researchers talk about their work….

(FYI: my work in science communication research is currently fully funded by a federal grant. Since taxpayer money has paid for my work, I try to make it – papers, presentations, publications – freely available to anyone who’s interested.)

I don’t mean to beat up on SETI. But I’ve been watching it closely for some time. I’d guess that if I looked around, I might find other research outfits that engage in similar practices.

The media, and “the public,” have long been interested in SETI (see, for example, Steve Dick’s excellent books on the history of SETI). Thus we can count on continuing press coverage. I only wish that journalists would (could?) more often stray from the neatly packaged, self-serving stories that sources pitch to them and explore their claims and motives.



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