On May 9, The Atlantic magazine posted a storyon its website with a misleading title: “Congress is quietly nudging NASA to look for aliens.”
Congress is doing no such thing.
What has actually happened – as The Atlantic story does explain – is that the House Committee on Science, Technology, and Space, which is responsible for authorizing (not appropriating) NASA funding has proposed a NASA authorization billfor fiscal years 2018-2019 that states (Subtitle B, Section 311): “NASA shall partner with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to the maximum extent practicable to search for technosignatures, such as radio transmissions, in order to meet the NASA objective to search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe. Subject to the availability of appropriations, the Administrator shall make available at least $10,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2018 and 2019 for the search for technosignatures.”
That’s it. The authorization bill has to be approved by the House. The Senate Commerce Committee will produce its own NASA authorization bill. The House and Senate bills must be reconciled before a final bill can come to a vote in both chambers.
Then there is the matter of appropriations. House and Senate appropriations committees may or may not consider this $10 million for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Leaving these words out of the House authorization bill is certainly intentional. But let there be no confusion – the search for technosignatures=SETI. (See below for a discussion of the SETI crowd’s attempt to “rebrand” SETI.)
I’d guess that The Atlantic’s storyis a product of continual lobbying by a core group of SETI scientists – mostly affiliated with the SETI Institute – who have not been able to raise sufficient private funding for their search and are pressing upon NASA’s astrobiology program* to provide funding. Part of the continual lobbying is continual courting of the media. I highly doubt (though I could be wrong) that the writer of this story dug down to Section 322 of the House bill to discover the passage about “the search for technosignatures.”
Copycat news outlets repeated The Atlantic’s misleading headline. Here’s an example, from Livescience.com:
“Congress Wants to Spend $10 Million to Search for Aliens and Texas Is to Thank.” The reference to Texas is due to the fact that House Science Committee chair Lamar Smith is from Texas.**
The Fox News web site picked up the Livescience story and slapped its own headline on it: “Alien shocker: Congress wants to spend millions searching for ET.”
Here’s more from The Atlantic’s story: “During a committee hearing for the proposed legislation in April, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democratic congresswoman from Texas, invoked the technosignatures measure as she criticized her Republican colleagues’ for wanting to cut earth- and climate-science funding. ‘Where does all this money go? The majority diverts it to searching for space aliens and to the president’s unexamined initiative to build an orbiting moon base, among other things,’ Johnson said.” Unless congressional appropriators were to add an additional $10 million to NASA’s budget for SETI, fulfilling a congressional direction to spend $10 million on SETI would require taking $10 million from another program. The NASA astrobiology program, funded at around $50 million a year, could ill afford a $10 million hit.
And more from The Atlantic: “As recently as January of this year, Tarter suggested a rebranding for SETI. ‘SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely,’ she said. SETI ‘is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.’”
I have known Jill for decades and admire and respect her. That said, I would call this particular argument specious. To repeat, the search for technosignatures=SETI.
This attempt at “rebranding” reminds me of another such attempt, in the early 1990s, when NASA had a SETI program. (At the time, I worked as a consultant to that program on advocacy planning.) NASA’s listening project, to begin operations in 1992, was called the SETI Microwave Observing Project. In response to some perceived squeamishness among some members and staff of Congress about “extraterrestrial intelligence,” NASA renamed the project the High-Resolution Microwave Survey. The survey (that is, the SETI search) began in October 1992, and Congress cancelled it in 1993.
Recently, SETI advocates have been arguing that advances in the fields of astrobiology and exoplanet science strengthen the rationale for SETI. I disagree. Astrobiology and exoplanet science are producing new findings by leaps and bounds these days, expanding understanding of the origin and evolution of planets and planetary systems, planetary habitability, the origin and evolution of Earth and life on Earth, and the possibility of microbial life (past or present) in our solar system.
Advances in astrobiology strengthen the case for life-detection missions to potentially habitable bodies in our solar system. Advances in exoplanet science strengthen the case for ramping up the search for them and better understanding the origins, evolution, and diversity of planets. To my mind, these advances do not strengthen the case for SETI.
The rationale for SETI relies on a stack of assumptions that I find difficult to accept. The assumptions that intelligence elsewhere would evolve like human intelligence, that extraterrestrial “civilizations” would be technological, and that extraterrestrial technologies would be like human technologies are especially hard for me to swallow. We know very little about human intelligence and even less about non-human terrestrial intelligences.
Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging again, about how and why SETI falls outside the domain of NASA’s astrobiology program.
* I am a part-time consultant to the NASA astrobiology program on communication issues. No one asked me to write this post.
** Smith, who apparently is quite interested in astrobiology and SETI, has held a series of hearings on the topics in recent years: “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 (both witnesses at this hearing were SETI scientists); “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade,” September 29, 2015; “Advances in the Search for Life,” April 26, 2017.