A new funding method for SETI?

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Photo by SETI Institute
Today I have the pleasure of sharing a guest blog from Suzanne Jacobs, an enthusiastic student in the MIT Science Writing program in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Suzanne’s topic covers a potential change in the landscape for funding SETI research.

Enjoy . . . 

Guest blog
By Suzanne Jacobs

What if a signal from E.T. came with a big cash prize?

A new proposal to fund the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through a lottery bond could give the decades-old endeavor a much-needed source of steady income.

Here’s how it would work: Investors would buy bonds at a fixed price, say $100, and receive a guaranteed rate of return until SETI scientists receive the first sign of extraterrestrial intelligent life, at which point all investors would get back their principal investments, and a random subset of them would win a lottery prize.

Every year that there’s no signal, a portion of investments would go to research, another portion would go to the lottery pot, and a third portion would go to interest rate payments.

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra came up with the idea.

He said that he started thinking about new ways to fund SETI, which uses telescopes to search for extraterrestrial radio signals, after its longtime director Jill Tarter stepped down from her position to become a fulltime fundraiser.

“I remember when I read that story, I was pretty struck by it, that apparently SETI was in such dire need of money to keep their new projects going that Jill was willing to take such a drastic step,” Haqq-Misra said.

Tarter, who inspired Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, was one of the founding members of the SETI Institute in 1984. She said that her efforts outside the lab have so far been unfruitful.

“It’s terribly difficult, and I’ve been a failure at it,” she said with frustration in her voice. “I’m just not succeeding. I’m giving an awful lot of talks, but I’m not turning that into cash for the institute.”

Ideally, Tarter would like SETI to have some kind of endowment that would guarantee a certain amount of funding each year. A lottery bond, she said, could offer that kind of stability.

But it would only work if people were interested in investing.

Robin Hanson is an economics professor at George Mason University with a background in astrobiology. He said that this method of funding could technically work, but he’s skeptical that it would attract more people than the current donation model.

Haqq-Misra disagrees.

“You can only appeal to a very small segment of donors when they’re really literally donating money for free and the only thing they get back is a tax write-off and maybe a good feeling,” he said.

The only way to truly test public interest, Haqq-Misra added, is to actually put the lottery bond out there and see how the market reacts.

He’s currently pitching the idea to economists, SETI researchers and other scientists to see what they think, and so far, he said, no one has told him it’s impossible.

Ultimately, he said, he’d like to issue the bond through a bank because a bank would be capable of managing a large fund and absorbing any initial losses at the bond’s outset.

SETI has been relying on charitable donations since 1993 when the government passed a bill excluding the project from NASA’s budget. The bill only applied for one fiscal year, but with NASA’s budget so tight, SETI never made it back in.

Last year, the non-profit research institute SRI International took over operations of SETI’s telescopes, but a staff of SETI scientists is still required to parse the data.

Tarter said that when she joined SETI right after graduate school, the idea of doing a science experiment to answer the age-old question of whether or not we were alone in the universe was new and exciting.

“Now, as the search continues and we try and attract the next generation and the generation after that of the best and the brightest young people with the cleverest ideas, the novelty is not there,” she said.

And neither is the money.

The non-profit institute that houses SETI currently employs 150 people, according to Tarter, but most of its scientists work on other projects related to exoplanet research, Mars exploration, or the search for extraterrestrial microbes.

Tarter said that she doesn’t expect Haqq-Misra’s proposal to solve all of her problems, but she’s excited to see where the idea goes.

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