Another SETI love fest on the Hill



The House Science subcommittees on research and space held a joint hearing today on astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. It was a love fest. There was no discussion of astrobiology per se – only the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which is not part of NASA’s astrobiology portfolio. (Disclosure: My work is partly funded by NASA’s astrobiology program. No one asked me to write this blog post.)

Today’s hearing followed a series of hearings on astrobiology held by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (“Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond,” December 4, 2013; “Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe,” May 21, 2014 – the only witnesses invited to testify at this hearing were SETI researchers; “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade,” September 29, 2015). All of these hearings were love fests, and SETI was a subject of discussion at all of them. Full committee chair Lamar Smith (R-TX), who attended today’s hearing, seems fond of SETI….

One of the witnesses invited to testify at today’s hearing was Shelley Wright, assistant profess of physics at the University of California, San Diego and principal investigator of a near-infrared SETI instrument and survey project called NIROSETI. The project is funded by Bill and Susan Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach, California.

(According to the Los Angeles Times, the Bloomfields spent $5.85 million “to help shape the outcomes of the 2014 elections in California.” In 2012, Bill Bloomfield spent $7.5 million to run against Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, who won the election.)

Wright appeared to be testifying on behalf of the Breakthrough Listen project (see her written statement), though neither her biographical statement nor the project site indicates a connection. She said she has been working on optical SETI since 2000.

Wright tried to make the case that the need to pursue SETI research is more pressing than ever due to recent advances in science: “A decade ago, humanity was only able to speculate on whether Earth-like planets were common in our Galaxy. Primarily due to NASA’s successful Kepler Mission, we now know that one in every five Sun-like stars in our Galaxy harbors an Earth-like planet.”

(I’m not all convinced that scientists “know” this for a fact, but I’ll leave it to the scientists to discuss. And as far as I know, astrobiologists are still debating what exactly “earth-like” means.)

“We are in the midst of a dramatic paradigm shift,” she continued. “Now…we know that organic molecules are abundant in interstellar space; life on Earth exists in extreme conditions in every nook and cranny; and planets are common among stars…. Two decades ago, unknowns about astrobiology and the likelihood of extrasolar planets discouraged government funding for SETI. [Congress cancelled NASA’s 10-year SETI project in 1993.] Today, thanks to successful NASA, NSF, and nationally supported missions and investigations, former concerns about the value of SETI research no longer apply. While there is much to learn about astrobiology and exoplanets, the relevance for advancing SETI is stronger today than ever before in the history of humankind.”

As to whether concerns about the value of SETI research still apply, I’d say this point is still open for discussion. Astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science decadal surveys of research priorities conducted by the National Academies for NASA have not identified SETI as a research priority. Though I’d guess the SETI community will be lobbying to add SETI in future decadal surveys, it’s doubtful this effort will succeed, as higher-priority projects will keep SETI off the list of priorities for government funding.

Wright also argued that more (implicitly, government) funding is needed for SETI. “A huge disparity exists between the enormous public and scientific interest in whether we are unique in the Universe, and resources that are actually allocated to SETI research. Since 1977, the rate of refereed papers about SETI is roughly flat, with the number of worldwide dedicated SETI researchers level at about a mere two dozen…. Lack of a steady stream of support discourages the best and brightest young scientists from moving into this area of study…. Given the lack of sustained academic funds for SETI, few opportunities exist worldwide for researchers and students to engage actively in SETI. Yet, many people around the globe believe there is no single discovery which will more fundamentally change humankind’s view of our place in the Universe than to discover extraterrestrial intelligence (ET).”

I would be interested in knowing what evidence the SETI community has to back up that latter claim.

Wright also appealed to a perennial interest of Congress, reporting that China has completed construction of a 500-meter radio telescope “to be used for a very sensitive SETI program that promises to be more sensitive than previous SETI searches, thus challenging US leadership in this field.”

Rep. Smith asked NASA and National Science Foundation witnesses, how promising is the option of detecting optical transmissions from other worlds? Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said NASA is not pursuing this technology – “which I regret,” Smith responded. In his opening statement, Rep. Smith had noted, “While partnerships between the private and public sector in astronomy are well established, these ties need to be strengthened when it comes to exoplanet surveys and exploration related to astrobiology. Private sector groups like the Breakthrough Listen project provide funding opportunities to leverage limited government funding to maximize discovery. Going forward, I hope that NASA, NSF, and academia will expand public-private partnerships to advance optical laser transmission surveys, as it is a promising and exciting field of inquiry.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) asked Wright, how has the Drake equation changed? What does it predict now? (I call the Drake “equation” a heuristic. It’s not math….) Wright reiterated her claim that one in five stars has an Earth-like planet. She said the key factor in the Drake (heuristic) is L, the lifetime of a civilization. We are in our technological infancy, she said, and other civilizations could be hundreds of thousands of years older than ours.

Tomorrow I’ll follow up on this blog post with a review of a paper published in the journal Astrobiology articulating a new rationale for SETI, authored by Nathalie Cabrol, director of the SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe (the center that oversees government (mostly NASA)-funded astrobiology research). My first read of the paper leads me to conclude that this new rationale is more expansive – this paper actually addresses some concerns I’ve been raising in recent years, in talks, on this blog, and in the chapter I contributed to The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth (Dick, ed., 2015). But this “new” approach to SETI still seems to rely on some basic assumptions that I think are worth further critique.

I suspect that Wright’s testimony and Cabrol’s paper are part of a strategy to lobby for NASA and/or NSF to start funding SETI research. For the reason I stated above, I’m not at all sure it will work. We’ll see.

Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting episode….


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