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Spending the SETI Institute's $200 Million Gift

Keith Cooper
Natalie Patane
Sarah Chokali
November 28, 202310:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

How would you spend $200 million?

That’s the welcome dilemma facing the SETI Institute, whose future is bright thanks to a huge financial gift from a late benefactor guaranteeing that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence can continue at the Institute.

Founded in 1984 by Jill Tarter and Tom Pierson, and nestled in California’s Silicon Valley, the SETI Institute has been the leading light in the search for technological alien life ever since. Despite the near-catastrophic decision by the US Congress to cancel NASA funding for SETI, the SETI Institute has persisted, diversifying its research among six divisions at its Carl Sagan Center for Research: astrobiology, astronomy and astrophysics, climate and biogeoscience, exoplanets, planetary exploration, and SETI. 

“Each of those divisions is an actively funded part of the SETI Institute,” says the organization’s CEO, Bill Diamond, in an interview with Supercluster. “Five of those six have access to federal funds through NASA and the National Science Foundation, but the sixth — SETI — does not.”

Instead, SETI has had to survive off scraps, or the occasional donation or endowment from a friendly philanthropist. Then in 2015, the search for ET hit the jackpot — the $100 million riches of Yuri Milner's Breakthrough Listen project. However the funding was not universal; Milner partnered with the University of California, Berkeley, not the SETI Institute. All those millions and none of it was going to the organization that had kept SETI alive all these years. 

But the SETI Institute had friends of its own. In 2008 Tarter met Franklin Antonio, one of the founders (employee number seven) of the electronic chip maker Qualcomm, whose products are found in everything from cell phones to smart homes. Antonio, who led R&D at Qualcomm, had an expertise in electronic engineering that was second to none, but he also had a very keen interest in the search for life beyond Earth. In 2012 he jumped on board at the SETI Institute as a benefactor, initially providing £3.6 million toward the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). The ATA had been the SETI Institute’s great hope when initially conceived, but over time it had increasingly become a ball and chain around the Institute’s neck regarding continued funding.

When Diamond joined in 2015, Antonio expressed his disappointment at the direction the situation with the Allen Telescope Array had taken, and the result of their frank discussion was a root-and-branch review of everything to do with the ATA. Antonio not only made recommendations but also regularly attended science and engineering meetings at the Institute.

“Franklin was very different from your typical benefactor in that he participated actively in the program rather than just funding it,” says Diamond. “He was an extraordinary gentleman, super-smart, and very passionate about science, education, and about giving young people from all backgrounds an opportunity.”

Sadly, Franklin Antonio died at the age of 69 in May 2022, but in his passing, he bequeathed $200 million from his estate to the SETI Institute. The gift is the gift of life, in a way: it means that SETI research at the SETI Institute is now assured a healthy existence long into the future.

How to Spend $200 Million

To put into context just what an enormous sum of money this is, it is twice the amount that Breakthrough Listen has spent to utterly transform SETI over the past decade.

So, with their coffers full, how are the SETI Institute going to spend their newfound riches?

“The very first major decision we made was not to spend the money [on one big thing],” says Diamond. “Instead, we’re going to treat it as an endowment, and I would say that one of the most profound things that this resource does is that it permanently funds SETI programs at the SETI Institute.”

First off, it ensures job security for researchers at the Institute. Second, it allows the Institute to continue with its current research programs such as participating in COSMIC, the Commensal Open-Source Multimode Interferometer Cluster, which is a SETI search using the Very Large Array (VLA) that was made famous as the backdrop to Robert Zemeckis’ movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. Third, it will fund PhD students and international researchers who may not have access to funding in their home country. Fourth, it will not only keep the ATA operational, but it will also pay to continue the upgrading work that Franklin Antonio began.

Upgrading the Allen Telescope Array

The ATA, based at Hat Creek Observatory in the Cascade Mountains, provides the SETI Institute with a dedicated radio-telescope array that can be used for SETI full-time. Originally part-funded by Microsoft’s Paul Allen (hence the name), the idea was to give SETI Institute researchers a dedicated instrument, but the dream quickly turned sour. The original plan was to have 350 dishes, but a lack of funding meant development stalled at 42 dishes back in the 2000s.

The ATA even had to be put into hibernation for a short time in 2011 when money for it ran out before help came from SRI International, which is a Californian not-for-profit research institute that took over management of the ATA partly in exchange for being granted fifty percent of the observing time on the array.

The upgrades prompted by Antonio are in the form of second-generation feeds for each of the 6.1-meter dishes in the array. The telescope feed is the antenna that is placed at the focal point of a radio dish and contains all the detector electronics. Originally, the dishes could detect radio wavelengths between 500 MHz and 10 GHz; the new feed electronics broaden this range to between 1 and 15 GHz, and cryogenic cooling doubles the sensitivity. Signal processing and data analysis have also been improved with all-new computer servers that speed up the observations.

”We’ve got about half the dishes of the ATA now outfitted with these second-generation feeds,” says Diamond. With Antonio’s gift, the SETI Institute will now be able to fund kitting out the remainder of the dishes with these new feeds, making the ATA a formidable instrument of “world-class level,” according to Diamond.

Could the ATA also grow with the addition of new dishes? This is an expenditure that is possible, says Diamond, although he cautions that it must be something that the scientists and administrators of the SETI Institute agree is the best way to invest some of the money.

“It all comes down to how we get the most bang for our buck,” says Diamond. “Personally I’d love to see the array get up to 64 dishes, which would dramatically improve the sensitivity, but it depends on what we collectively feel is the best investment.”

He does rule out any effort to match the original plan for the ATA, though. “I don’t think there’s any motivation or need to go up to the 300-and-odd dishes that were the initial concept,” Diamond says.

Financing SETI’s Next Generation

More understated, but potentially just as important to SETI in the long run, are the plans to fund PhD students and international researchers. 

PhD students are the future of SETI, the researchers that will carry on the search in the coming years. Back in the day, with no federal funding for SETI, Paul Horowitz at Harvard used to do SETI PhDs by stealth, having students design instruments for radio telescopes but then using them for small SETI projects. Breakthrough Listen introduced dedicated SETI PhDs, and now the SETI Institute will follow suit.

In fact, the SETI Institute will finance six PhDs, one for each of its research divisions.

PhDs in SETI are important in more ways than simply training the next generation of SETI researchers. With enough scientists trained in various aspects of SETI — be that radio or optical SETI, or searching for technosignatures in general — the more chance there is that some of them will get onto the committees of funding bodies such as those for NASA or the NSF. Their presence on such committees would neatly converge with growing public, academic, and even political interest in the search for alien life, the interest that has been gaining momentum from the success of Breakthrough Listen. To illustrate this, in 2018 Congress asked NASA to host an academic conference discussing SETI and technosignatures, and NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Research, Michael New, told attendees that NASA funding for SETI projects was not necessarily off-limits anymore.

The hope is that this momentum will put pressure on politicians to authorize new public funding for SETI and that having the right people in the right place on funding bodies will give SETI projects a better chance of getting some of the pot of money made available to scientists.

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Previously I’d asked Andrew Siemion, who is both Principal Investigator of Breakthrough Listen and the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, about the importance of students studying for PhDs in SETI.

“Once you have them on funding committees,” Siemion told me, “then it’s game-set-match because then you have them making the decisions about the things that are going to be funded in the future, and the cycle will self-perpetuate at that point.”

Investing in SETI People

That’s the real investment being made by both Breakthrough Listen and Franklin Antonio’s gift, not in instruments or technology, but in people who will hopefully help to ensure that SETI gets a bigger slice of the action in the future. The same applies to the SETI Institute’s promise to make funding available for the first time to overseas researchers from countries that don’t have, and perhaps can’t afford, a SETI program. 

“To begin with, this pool of money [for international researchers] will be somewhat modest, but I think it’s going to be a very significant change for the field broadly,” says Diamond.

For a long time, SETI has been the domain of a group of scientists based mostly in California, with the shared perspectives that brings, but SETI is also crying out for new ideas and new perspectives. Involving researchers from other countries will broaden SETI’s approach and strengthen the robustness and quality of the search.

Things are now looking up for SETI at the SETI Institute. When Supercluster spoke to Bill Diamond, he was at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester in the UK for a workshop formally opening Breakthrough Listen’s new partnership with the University of Oxford, and this time the SETI Institute is invited to the party.

With the clout the SETI Institute now wields, it is going to remain a major player in SETI from hereon — right where it should be.

Keith Cooper
Natalie Patane
Sarah Chokali
November 28, 202310:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)