The paper by Stephen Garber delves into the politics and the history of the funding for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the opposition it has faced in the US Congress.
Garber starts off by reviewing the history of SETI. Its origins in the seminal paper by Cocconi and Morrison (1959), from where it moved on to Project Ozma, the proposed Project Cyclops, Serendip, and the establishment of the non-profit SETI Institute in California.
In the 1970s, NASA began funding SETI under Philip Morrison, and established a SETI branch at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). However, 1978 bought along the first roadblock for SETI in the US Congress; where, Senator William Proxmire moved an amendment to stop funding the SETI research, something he viewed as a silly search for aliens. Timely intervention by Carl Sagan made NASA resume the funding in 1983. Come along 1991, and NASA formally endorsed the SETI programme, with the Bush government requesting $12 million in funding. This would have been to start the Microwave Observing Project (MOP). However, the reception given to this proposal at the Capitol Hill was adverse to say the least, an uphill task was at hand.
An affliction of the SETI programme is the ‘giggle factor’, which is how SETI is wrongfully associated with UFOs and Science Fiction. In the light of the budget deficit and this erroneous public (and sometimes Congressional) perception, NASA restructured the programme as the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS).
This restructuring, along with the efforts by Senator Jake Garn, led to HRMS being allocated $12 million for FY93, in part for a $100 million 10 year program. However, the very next year the Senate approved a plan to terminate SETI. In the words of Senator Richard Bryan – “This hopefully will be the end of Martian hunting season at the
taxpayer’s expense”. Starting then, SETI relied on private donors for its funding.
Moving forward 25 years, unfortunately the situation today (2018) is not much more favourable for SETI. As discussed in Wright 2018 , SETI is still not viewed as a part of astrobiology by NASA. Further, budget cuts in the sciences by the new Trump administration have not helped its cause. That being said, on a more optimistic note: SETI has been helped by an infusion of funds from the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. Though private funding of the Sciences is always welcome, it should not be a substitute for reduced funding by the Government in lieu of buying more F-35s (each one costs about $100 million).