Press Release

Testimony of Christopher F. Chyba: “Life in the Universe” – hearings before the House Subcommiteee on Space and Aeronautics

By SpaceRef Editor
July 12, 2001
Filed under , ,

Written Testimony of Christopher F. Chyba

for the hearing on “Life in the Universe”

held by the

House Committee on Science

Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

July 12, 2001

It is a pleasure to testify at such an exciting time for scientific investigations into the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Over the past decade we’ve learned a great deal that
makes the prospects for life elsewhere seem better than ever.  But we want to remember that prospects are not proof, and it still remains possible that Earth is the only
planet where life exists.  That would seem extraordinary, and I doubt it’s likely in a galaxy with 400 billion stars, but the honest answer is that we don’t know yet.  But what
we can do is to use scientific exploration to try and find out.

The rebirth of exobiology

Over the past decade there has been a rebirth of the scientific study of life elsewhere in the universe – and for very good reasons:

We’ve learned that organic molecules, the sort of carbon-based molecules on which life on Earth is based, are abundant not only in our own solar system, but
throughout the space between the stars.  They are likely to be present in many solar systems.  But we haven’t observed in interstellar space an analogous variety of
silicon-based molecules.  So, through scientific observation, we’ve gotten a hint that the old science-fiction speculation about “silicon-based life” seems unlikely to hold up
in the real universe.  The chemistry of biology elsewhere seems more likely than ever to be the chemistry of carbon, as it is on Earth.

We’re finally beginning to learn what other planets are out there.  While we can’t yet detect solar systems like our own – but that is coming–at a minimum we now
know that planets themselves are not rare.  My own suspicion is that just about every kind of solar system that could be out there will be out there – so that ours will prove
to be neither common nor rare.  It will merely be one of a wide variety of possibilities.  But again, we’re in the process of finding out whether this is in fact the case.

Within our own solar system, we have more and more evidence on other worlds for liquid water, an essential ingredient for life as we know it.  Water seems to have
flowed on the martian surface in the geologically recent past, and there is now strong, though still indirect, evidence for a second ocean in our solar system beneath the ice
of Jupiter’s moon Europa.  By a second ocean I mean exactly that; the evidence from the Voyager and especially Galileo spacecraft missions points towards an ocean
whose volume is nearly twice that of all the Earth’s oceans combined.  Perhaps even more astonishing, there is now evidence for subsurface oceans under the ice of two of
Jupiter’s other large moons, Ganymede and Callisto.  We’ve gone from thinking that Earth’s ocean is unique to thinking that our ocean may be one of many.  If we want to
look for life in our solar system, the importance of Europa – the world where the ocean appears to be closest to the surface – can hardly be exaggerated.

We’ve also learned that Earth harbors a deep subsurface biosphere, and that the mass in microorganisms beneath our feet, reaching down miles underground, likely
equals or exceeds the mass of all the organisms on Earth’s surface, forests included.  This is a dramatically different picture of terrestrial life than the one we experience
daily, and makes speculation about subsurface life on Europa, or vestigial life on Mars seem much more credible.  Our understanding of the Earth helps shape our thinking
about other worlds, and vice-versa.

Finally, we’re slowly learning more about the history of life on Earth, and the events that have led to the development of intelligence.  We should remember in this
context that several species of dolphin have bigger brains in comparison to their body size than did homo habilis, one of our tool-using ancestors.  But we don’t know
whether the evolution of human-style technical intelligence is something that will prove to be incredibly rare or common.  Addressing this question by studying the history
of life on Earth is important, but there’s another way to approach the problem: the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).  This search is about to enter a
far more sophisticated realm, which I will describe in detail in this testimony.

The SETI Institute

The SETI Institute is a private scientific institute with about 120 employees, dedicated to research, education, and public outreach.  The Institute was founded
almost 17 years ago.  Its mission is to use scientific methods to investigate the nature and distribution of life in the universe.  Research at the Institute is anchored by two
centers, each directed by the holder of an endowed chair. Dr. Jill Tarter holds the Bernard Oliver Chair, and directs SETI programs at the Institute.  I hold the Carl Sagan
Chair, and direct the Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.

The Institute also has substantial education and public outreach components, both informally in the form of hundreds of talks given by Institute scientists to
audiences of all ages, and more formally in terms of curriculum development.  For example, the Voyages Through Time project, funded by the National Science
Foundation, is a one-year, high school integrated science curriculum focussing on evolution as an overarching theme.  Everything evolves – changes over time – from the
universe itself to humans and their technology.  Voyages Through Time will begin national field testing in September.  The Institute, together with the Astronomical
Society of the Pacific, is also developing the education and public outreach program for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).  These are but
a few highlights.

The Center for the Study of Life in the Universe

The SETI Institute’s Center for the Study of Life in the Universe comprises some twenty-five scientists pursuing research dedicated to understanding the origin,
nature, and prevalence of life in the universe.  Institute scientists study interstellar organic chemistry, planet formation, the search for extrasolar planets, the chemistry of
life’s origins, microbiology and life in extreme environments, planetary climatology and habitability, Mars and Europa, the role of impacts in the history of life on Earth
and the future of human civilization, dolphin and humpback whale communication, and many other topics. Most of this work is supported by peer-reviewed grants, usually
funded by NASA but sometimes by the NSF or other agencies, and published in the leading scientific peer-reviewed journals.  I am pleased to be testifying alongside Dr. Jack
Farmer, who is one of many astrobiologists at universities or NASA centers around the country who early in their careers were Principal Investigators at the SETI Institute.

Our experience has taught us that cross-talk among these very disparate disciplines, together in a single scientific institute, can be enormously valuable in advancing
our understanding of life in the universe.  Examples include the application of information theory developed for electromagnetic signals to analyzing dolphin
communication (published in Animal Behavior), climate modeling applied to target selection in a search for extrasolar habitable planets (published in The Astrophysical
Journal), or signal processing algorithms initially developed for SETI enabling the detection of Earth-sized planets with the proposed Kepler spacecraft.

Other research groups at the Center include Dr. Pascal Lee’s annual expeditions to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, where in conjunction with NASA’s Ames
Research Center and others, he and his colleagues study the Haughton impact crater and its hydrothermal vents as Earth analogues to martian geological features.  Dr. Lee’s
team also conducts “exploration research,” in which they test the robot and astronaut technologies (including spacesuit tests and time-lagged communications) that human
explorers may eventually use in field work on Mars.

A final example of the breadth of work at the SETI Institute would be my own group’s work on techniques to investigate the likely ocean beneath Europa’s ice
cover, and the prospects for life in that ocean.  In the past two years, we have published our results in Science, Nature, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences.  This work has also often involved close cooperation with NASA.  In particular, from 1997 to 1999, I chaired the Science Definition Team for NASA’s
upcoming Europa Orbiter Mission, a mission to search for Europa’s putative ocean, and to begin to set the stage for investigating the possibility of life on that jovian

Life in the Universe and SETI

Why has the SETI Institute, whose name is an acronym for “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” from its inception included research across the spectrum
of what is now called astrobiology?  It is because only by understanding the many factors that make a world habitable, that determine whether life arises on that world,
whether that life gives rise to intelligence, and whether that life develops technology, can we put the search for electromagnetic signals from extraterrestrial civilizations
into a scientific context.  We do not assume answers to these questions: worlds that can support life may or may not be common; life on such worlds may or may not arise
often; that life may or may not develop multicellularity or intelligence frequently; and intelligence may or may not often lead to technology.  But the scientific
investigation of these problems is exciting and inspiring (most importantly to children and students) and helps humanity place itself in the universe.  There is a continuum
of scientific questions that extends from the formation of stars and planets to the development of technical civilizations, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is
an integral component of the scientific investigation of that continuum. 

Project Phoenix

Fiscal Year 1994 was a year of great concern over the federal budget deficit.  As a result of this concern, the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), NASA’s
SETI project, was terminated by Congress.  Special-purpose HRMS technology had been developed by the SETI Institute under a cooperative agreement award from the
NASA Ames Research Center.  After the closing of NASA’s HRMS project, this technology was provided to the SETI Institute in the form of a long-term loan from NASA,
so that the taxpayers would receive some return on the multi-year investment into the development of the special purpose receivers and signal processors.  Using its own
philanthropically raised dollars, the SETI Institute has subsequently doubled the size of this system, and substantially enhanced its capabilities. 

This enhanced system is currently in regular use by the SETI Institute’s Project Phoenix.  Project Phoenix employs the world’s largest radio telescopes to search
the vicinities of nearby stars for artificially produced signals.  To discriminate against human-caused radio frequency interference, Phoenix observes with two widely
separated antennas, currently the 1000 foot diameter Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, the world’s most sensitive radio telescope, and the 210 foot Lovell telescope at the
Jodrell Bank observatory in the United Kingdom.  Phoenix was previously deployed on the Parkes and Mopra radio telescopes in Australia, and the 140 foot telescope at
the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia coupled with the Georgia Tech Woodbury 30 meter antenna.

Project Phoenix costs between $4 and 5 million dollars a year to run.  It has been and remains entirely privately funded, through donations to the Institute of many
sizes but including very generous gifts from some of America’s most visionary technologists, such as William Hewlett, David Packard, Gordon Moore, Paul Allen, and
Barney Oliver.

Project Phoenix’s goal is to examine the 1000 nearest Sun-like stars for radio signals that could indicate the presence of a technical civilization.  Phoenix’s
“targeted search system” examines stars one by one across the frequency range of 1 to 3 Gigahertz, or wavelengths from about 30 centimeters down to 10 centimeter.
These frequencies are chosen because they lie within the so-called “microwave window,” the range of the electromagnetic spectrum where the background noise (think of it
as static on a radio dial) throughout the galaxy is lowest.  Any civilization in our galaxy that wishes to maximize the efficiency of its signaling (achieve the highest
signal-to-noise ratio) will know about and possibly exploit this window for efficient broadcasting.  Since we cannot know the frequency or frequencies within this window at
which another technical civilization would choose to broadcast, we try to cover as many channels as our instrumentation will allow.  In fact, the Phoenix dedicated
multichannel spectrum analyzer allows us to examine 28 million frequencies simultaneously.  It’s as if instead of turning your radio dial looking for any station you could
find, you had an instrument that could check 28 million positions of the dial at the same time and alert you if there was a broadcast on any one of them.  Actually, it’s more
complicated than that, because we allow the frequency to drift with time (as truly extraterrestrial sources should, due to planetary rotation) and we examine two senses of
circular polarization simultaneously, doubling the number of channels observed.  Each target star is observed 56 million channels at a time for five minutes, and then highly
optimized, real-time computational methods developed by the SETI Institute to search that entire time-frequency space for patterns indicative of signals.

The thousand nearest Sun-like stars lie within about 150 light years of Earth.  This is only a tiny fraction of the entire Milky Way galaxy, which contains some 400
billion stars and is 100,000 light years across.  Another way of saying this is that Project Phoenix, even though it is the most advanced SETI search ever conducted, will
only examine several stars out of every billion in the galaxy.  Phoenix has been operating since 1995, and has to date completed its observations of a bit more than half of
its targets. 

Why so slow? Since SETI gets so much media attention, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that SETI researchers have searched the galaxy thoroughly, yet
still found nothing.  In fact we’ve only examined about one-billionth of the galaxy so far.  One reason is that we are only able to observe at Arecibo for 500 hours each
year.  Arecibo is the world’s most sensitive radio telescope, and SETI must compete for time against other high priority astronomical observations.  To alleviate these
limitations, the SETI Institute together with the University of California is designing and building a revolutionary new radio telescope called the Allen Telescope Array,
which I will describe later in this testimony.

How do we know if a signal is artificial?

The first criterion that any signal must satisfy in order to be artificial is to have a very narrow spectral bandwidth [in fact, we look for bandwidths below about 1 Hz
(Hertz, a measure of frequency equal to one cycle per second) in width].  This is another way of saying that the wavelength of the signal is extremely precise; this precision
is one way of making a transmission highly efficient.  Narrow-band signals pack a lot of energy into a small amount of spectral space.  Many natural objects in the universe
produce radio waves (including our own Sun), but no naturally occurring source in the universe is known that produces bandwidths thinner than 300 Hz.  Any object
producing extremely narrow bandwidth signals is either artificial or represents some previously entirely unknown coherent astrophysical phenomenon. 

Project Phoenix detects narrow bandwidth signals all the time.  Unfortunately, to date all of them have been proven to be interference from artificial objects created
by humans.  To help deal with the problem of human caused interference, our computers compare detected signals with a database of all previous terrestrial and satellite
interference transmissions detected in earlier observations.  Any apparent detections that pass through this filter are then automatically re-examined by Arecibo and a
second telescope in Jodrell Bank, England.  If the second telescope also sees the signal, we know that it’s real and not instrumental noise, or some technical problem with
the Arecibo telescope, or due to local interference.  Moreover, because Jodrell Bank is in a different place on the Earth’s surface (which is rotating and moving through
space), if the signal is truly extraterrestrial there should be a precisely calculable frequency shift between the signal measured at the two telescopes.  If this exact shift isn’t
seen, then once again the source of the signal isn’t extraterrestrial.

Because Project Phoenix handles so much data at once, the data analysis has to be automated, computationally efficient, and executed in real time.  The vast
majority of our computational time goes into eliminating artificial signals that turn out to be human interference.  The problem of interference is getting worse and worse,
but fortunately computer power is simultaneously getting better and better.

Finally, to give some sense of how sensitive our searches are, it’s worth mentioning that we have for many years tested our system by using the signal transmitted by
the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, launched from Earth in 1972 and now traveling beyond our Solar System.  Pioneer 10 is at a distance of 6 billion miles from Earth and
broadcasting with a power of a few watts – much less than a light bulb in your house, but about the power of a small flashlight.  It takes more than 10 hours for Pioneer 10’s
radio signal, traveling at the speed of light, to reach Earth.  Because Pioneer 10 really is an extraterrestrial (even extra-Solar System!) artificial source, it provides an
excellent test for our system – and it comes in loud and clear.  (Or at least it did until last summer, when on-board antenna pointing connections were not successfully
executed.  Pioneer 10 can still be detected, but only after it receives a transmission on which to lock.)

SETI 2020

In 1997, the SETI Institute established a Science and Technology Working Group to examine future opportunities for SETI and make specific recommendations for
how the discipline should proceed as Project Phoenix neared completion.  The Working Group was composed of respected astronomers, physicists, SETI scientists and
innovators from Silicon Valley and other high-technology firms.  The Working Group conducted four 3-day meetings over a period  of two years, resulting in a SETI
science and technology plan for the years 2000 to 2020.  Its report is being published by the SETI Institute under the title SETI 2020.

The Working Group recommended that the SETI Institute:  (1) Undertake the development and construction of an innovative 1 hectare (10,000 square meter)
radio telescope to carry out targeted searches o f candidate stars; (2) Begin studies of a second telescope that would be dedicated to an all-sky survey; and (3) Set aside funds
for small-scale experiments to detect very rapidly pulsed infrared and optical signals of extraterrestrial origin using existing telescopes (so-called “optical SETI,” which is
just becoming possible due to our ability now to inexpensively detect laser pulses of only a billionth of a second duration).  The SETI Institute is pursuing all three of these
projects, and is already well along the way of prototyping the one hectare telescope, previously known as the 1HT but now being built as the Allen Telescope Array.

The Allen Telescope Array

Following the recommendations of the SETI 2020 report, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) will be an array of about 350 specially designed, low-cost antennas,
each 6 meters (18 feet) in diameter, that can be simultaneously used for both SETI and other radio-astronomical research.  Because it will be able to observe many SETI
target stars at the same time, with more channels (and from 1 to 10 GHz) and for 24 hours a day, the ATA will permit the SETI Institute to examine the nearest 100,000
or even million stars over the next two decades, compared with the 1000 observed by Project Phoenix.  This means that we will be probing about ten times farther out into
the galaxy.  It should be remembered, though, that even a million stars still represents only a tiny fraction of the 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.  The ATA
represents a huge step forward in SETI, but it will still remain the case that only a tiny fraction of the galaxy will be thoroughly examined.

The Allen Telescope Array was made possible by the far-sighted benevolence of technologists Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) and Nathan Myhrvold (former
Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft).  It is a joint effort by the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and will be built at the existing Hat
Creek Observatory, run by UCB, in northern California’s Cascades.  The ATA is scheduled to become partially operational in 2004 and fully operational in 2005.  It is on
time and on budget; with total estimated cost through construction of approximately $30 million, about 20% of the price of a conventional radio telescope of the same
collecting area.

Until now it was only practical to construct the collecting area for a major radio telescope as single enormous dish, as at Arecibo, or as several large dishes (the Very
Large Array in New Mexico has 27 dishes) whose output is combined.  But the ATA will be constructed using hundreds of mass-produced dishes.  By incorporating
innovative technologies, miniaturized electronics and vast amounts of computer processing, the ATA will be able to observe up to a dozen SETI target stars simultaneously,
over a wide range of simultaneous frequencies.  It will also simultaneously be a premier instrument for more traditional research in radio astronomy. We have entered a
realm where SETI research is driving telescope technology, and resulting in innovative cutting-edge designs that will further the research of more traditional,
government-funded astronomers, and will alter the way that future facilities are built.

What happens if we detect a signal?

With Project Phoenix ongoing, and the Allen Telescope Array set to expand the number of stars observed by a factor of 100 to 1000, it is important to ask what
happens should the search succeed. 

In fact, scientists such as the SETI Institute’s John Billingham and Jill Tarter have taken the lead in planning for the day we might receive a signal from life beyond
Earth.  Working with diplomats and space lawyers, they have helped develop protocols that guide the activities of SETI scientists if they think that they may have detected
extraterrestrial intelligence.  These protocols were adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Institute of Space Law.  They are designed
to emphasize confirmation and prevent a mistaken announcement.  Perhaps above all, they promise that there shall be no secrecy.  The SETI Institute symbolizes this
commitment via its continuing live web-casting of its Project Phoenix observing sessions at Arecibo.

As in other areas of science, confirmation involves bringing other scientists into the investigation, who can observe the signal with other instruments, and perform a
kind of “peer review” of the data and its interpretation before a public announcement is made.  Once the observation is confirmed, an announcement would be made to the
general public and the wider scientific community.  Realistically, however, the press may well pick up the story long before final verification is made.  It is important to
avoid making premature – and therefore misleading – announcements to the public, but it is just as important to provide accurate information with some assessment of
scientific uncertainty.  SETI investigations are in some respects similar to those for Earth-crossing asteroids.  The asteroid observing community has learned over the past
decade the importance of taking extreme care with public announcements to ensure that misinterpretation and hype did not result when substantial scientific uncertainty
was still present.

Beyond the immediate post-detection decision-making, there could be important social and philosophical implications of a detection of a signal.  The SETI Institute
also sponsors research into these questions. The Institute’s SETI Press has published the book Social Implications of the Detection of an Extraterrestrial Civilization, based
on a series of workshops on the cultural implications of SETI held in 1991 and 1992.  Moreover, the Institute has on its staff a social scientist who studies these issues full
time, Dr. Douglas Vakoch.  Dr. Vakoch’s work draws on his formal background in several areas, including Comparative Religion, History and Philosophy of Science, and
Clinical Psychology.  He applies insights from these disciplines to SETI by showing that in the same way that theologians, philosophers, and psychotherapists can expand
their views by becoming more open to alternative perspectives, so too might humankind as a whole expand its worldview by receiving messages from extraterrestrial

Even though signals may be detected, it is unlikely that an interstellar dialogue would occur, except over extremely long timescales.  If we detect a signal from a star
100 light years away, that message was sent 100 years ago – so that two-way communication would require 200 years for each reply.  But human history has shown that the
transmission of knowledge across great distances in time can still have profound effects; one need only consider the impact on medieval western Europe of the transmission
of ancient Greek learning and science via the translation of Arab texts.  The MIT physicist Phil Morrison has suggested that an extraterrestrial message would constitute
“the archeology not of the past, but of the future.”

But it is quite possible that, while we could detect the signal’s carrier wave, we would not have the sensitivity to detect whatever message might be carried by that
wave.  Even if we could, it is difficult to predict how difficult decipherment might prove to be.  The metaphor of ancient Greek knowledge is an optimistic one.  My
personal expectation is that decipherment would prove very difficult.  A possible better analogy could be the decipherment of inscriptions left by the ancient Maya, which
proved extremely difficult.  Even in this case, we had the advantage of being able to apply linguistic knowledge from extant Maya languages.  And of course, we share a
genetic and sociological heritage with any other human culture that we will not share with an extraterrestrial civilization.  Nevertheless, if we detect an extraterrestrial radio
signal, we will at least have in common the physics and mathematics that made that transmission possible, and this could be a starting point.

SETI: public interest and scientific peer review

The scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence obviously enjoys great public interest.  We see this every day at the Institute, where we serve as a resource for
the press covering topics across the range of life in the universe studies.  Our web site ( receives about two million hits per month.  When I teach my graduate
seminar, “The origins of life in the solar system” at Stanford every year, with students from a half-dozen different departments, every year the students enthusiastically
request a visit to the SETI Institute to learn about Project Phoenix and the Allen Telescope Array.  We view this kind of interest as a tremendous opportunity to teach
students and the general public about science and the scientific method – that blend of openness to new ideas coupled with an insistence on hard evidence and skeptical
analysis of data.

SETI is respected within the scientific community.  One indication of this is the membership of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees, which includes three
members of the National Academy of Sciences: Frank Drake, Sandra Faber, and W. Jack Welch.  A second indication comes from the “decadal review” of astronomy and
astrophysics that the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences conducts every ten years to survey the field and make recommendations for
new research initiatives.  Each of the past four decadal reviews conducted by the NRC has endorsed SETI.  The most recent decadal review, Astronomy and Astrophysics in
the New Millennium, reads (pp. 131-132):

“Are we alone in the universe? Finding evidence for intelligence elsewhere would have a profound effect on humanity.  Searching for evidence for extraterrestrial life of any
form is technically very demanding, but, as indicated in the discussion of TPF [Terrestrial Planet Finder] above, there is a clear approach for doing so.  The search for
extraterrestrial intelligence is far more speculative because researchers do not know what to search for.  Radio astronomers have taken the lead in addressing this challenging
problem, and SETI programs are under way at many radio telescopes around the world.  This [NRC] committee, like previous survey committees, believes that the
speculative nature of SETI research demands continued development of innovative technology and approaches, which need not be restricted to radio wavelengths.  The
privately funded 1HT [now the Allen Telescope Array], which will be the first radio telescope built specifically for SETI research, is a good example of such an innovative
approach, and it will pioneer new radio techniques that could be used in the SKA [Square Kilometer Array].”

The Square Kilometer Array

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) is an international ground-based radio telescope that will have a million square meters of collecting area – making it a factor of
100 times more sensitive than the most sensitive existing radio telescopes.  The National Academy’s last decadal review endorsed a technology development program for
the SKA, for the “unprecedented images” and “great discovery potential” that it will allow.  The SKA is a big part of the future of radio astronomy, and the SETI Institute’s
Allen Telescope Array is pioneering techniques that could be used in the SKA.  In effect, it is the leading prototype for the SKA.

SETI scientists are playing crucial roles in the planning for the SKA.  My colleague Dr. Jill Tarter is Chair of the U.S. SKA Consortium, and Vice Chair of the
International SKA consortium.  Dr. Frank Drake, President of the SETI Institute, is the treasurer of the U.S. SKA consortium.  Along with UC Berkeley, the SETI Institute
has just hosted the current international conference on the SKA. 

SETI and Astrobiology

I hope that my testimony makes it clear that the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence is an integral part of the continuum of questions asked by
astrobiology.  SETI science and the SETI Institute are at the cutting edge of current radio astronomy, and the technology development underway will benefit radio
astronomy of all kinds.  Similarly, the distributed computing pioneered by the University of California’s SETI@home project helped to kick-start the distributed computing
industry.  Finally, the science of SETI, while undeniably speculative, has repeatedly passed “peer review” within the scientific community, as shown by its endorsement in
each of the last four astronomy and astrophysics decadal reviews by the National Academy of Sciences.

However, we are concerned that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, despite having passed scientific peer-reviewed and being technologically cutting-edge,
may not be competing on a level playing field within the federal government.  The termination of the SETI program within NASA’s budget in FY94 seems to have left the
perception that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a field of science that may not be funded or partnered with.  We do not think that this is an accurate perception
but perceptions can take on a life of their own.  While some opponents caricatured SETI in the 1993 Congressional debate, and called it a “project that really only helps
just bureaucrats at NASA,” others emphasized that they were not questioning its scientific value, but were acting in the face of the budget deficit.

We think that SETI fits naturally with the fundamental questions at the heart of NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap.  The Roadmap addresses three questions, including
“Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?” (which is sometimes followed by the additional question “Are we alone?”) and “What is life’s future on Earth and beyond?”  The
question of whether any other intelligent civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe is a natural part of these questions.  As the Astrobiology program moves forward, the
SETI Institute would welcome the opportunity to work with NASA to integrate the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into this program.

But let me be clear:  I am not suggesting any earmarking of government funds for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  The SETI Institute is completely
confident in its ability to compete effectively under peer-review conditions, and we are obviously being successful in our private fund-raising.  Our “life in the universe”
projects – which cover all areas of astrobiology except for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence–compete for NASA and other federal grants routinely and successfully,
and we are sure that SETI-related proposals would do so as well.

We also believe that the experience of the Allen Telescope Array demonstrates the potential benefits of public-private partnerships in this area.  Our partnership
with the University of California at Berkeley to build the ATA and to help plan the Square Kilometer Array is a powerful example of an extremely successful private-public
partnership between the SETI Institute and the State of California.  We hope that the U.S. federal government will be open to such partnerships as well.  We believe that
they will prove of mutual benefit, as they have already proven to be in the case of the Allen Telescope Array and the Square Kilometer Array.  We would welcome the
opportunity to discuss such opportunities further.

SpaceRef staff editor.