The Cost of SETI: Infographic

By Phil Plait | May 1, 2011 7:00 am

[UPDATE (Monday, May 2): There have been a lot of interesting comments on this post since I put it up, but I have to give the honors to this one. Thanks, Jill!]

John at μcosmologist has created an interesting infographic depicting how much it would cost to run SETI from one year ($2.5 million) versus various other things we spend money on. In the graphic, each radio dish represents $2.5 million. Here’s a (small) piece of it:

[Click to enalienate.]

The whole thing is much larger, and you really need to see it. Especially the bit about how much people spend on Starbucks. Yegads.

John made this because of SETI having to mothball the Allen Telescope Array, and I strongly suspect because people were trying to say there are better things to spend money on. I’ll tell you, I think that argument is a crock. First off, it’s a false dichotomy; we can afford to do more than what we need to survive. And moreover, there is always something better to spend money on, yet we still seem to be able to justify (or rationalize) the way we spend the money we do.

In the United States alone we spend five times as much on tobacco products as we do on the entirety of NASA. How’s that for rationalization? And what we spend on NASA is much, much more than we spend on SETI (7500x more, actually). And we don’t spend enough on NASA, either.

On the other hand, as a skeptic, I understand the desire to ask why we should spend this money on SETI, why we should spend it looking for alien intelligences? There are lots of reasons, actually, but I still think the best one is simple: Because we should.


Related posts:

- What value space exploration?
- Seth Shostak gets the Colbert treatment
- E.T. call waiting
- Carl Sagan on SETI

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (121)

  1. Funkopolis

    The iPad block makes me think Apple should bail out SETI. Not only can they afford it by several orders of magnitude, the look on Steve Allen’s face would be totally worth it.

  2. frankenstein monster

    The money is not important. What is important that SETI does not fit in the regressive world-view that is ubiquitous among politicians, plutocrats, and the majority of the population. So it is axed under the pretense that it is impossible to find $ 2.5 M somewhere.

  3. gdave

    First off, I am disappointed that the Allen Array is being moth-balled. I like SETI. I think it’s cool, and worthwhile science, and money well-spent.

    But.

    These comparisons are apples and oranges. The Allen Array is being moth-balled because UC-Berkeley is cutting funding. None of these items are funded by the UC-Berkeley budget. UC-Berkeley is cutting funding because the state of California is in a dire financial situation, and is cutting funding to higher education. None of these items is funded out of the California state budget.

    Yes, “we can afford to do more than what we need to survive”, but budgets are finite. Has anyone got a detailed proposal of what UC-Berkeley should cut instead to maintain funding for the Allen Array? Or what California should cut? Where is that $2.5 million going to come from?

    NASA could take up funding SETI again, but what project(s) are you going to cut to free up that $2.5 million? Again, finite budget. Of course, we could spend more on NASA, but what do we cut out of the budget to do that? The federal budget may but huge, but it is also finite – and deeply in the red.

    As for tobacco products, Starbucks, iPads, etc., that’s apples and triangles. We don’t have a command economy. Aggregate consumer spending is the result of millions of individual decisions. Personally, I feel I gain a greater utility out of buying an iPad than donating the equivalent amount to SETI. And I have a finite budget. I can’t donate to all the worthy causes that exist.

    Maybe SETI doesn’t receive enough funding. Maybe NASA doesn’t either. But there is a near infinity of worthy causes, and a distinctly finite pool of money to fund them. We could double federal and state funding on scientific research and education, and there would still be difficult funding decisions to be made. And corresponding difficult cuts made to other worthwhile programs. We DO have to make trade-offs in spending decisions.

  4. Even wasted money isn’t really wasted, because it goes to employee wages, lets them bring up their families, and then circulates amongst their community, like any money does and should.

  5. So is SETI renting out the Array?

    It may be inconvenient but I am sure they could make funding by renting their array to other, better funded, radio astronomy groups. At least it would keep the lights on.

  6. frankenstein monster

    As for tobacco products, Starbucks, iPads, etc., that’s apples and triangles.

    No, it is not. It shows where the priorities lie. 2.5m / 300 m americans = 0.8 cent per person.

    We could double federal and state funding on scientific research and education, and there would still be difficult funding decisions to be made.

    That is false. If the budget doubled, there would be no need to shut down entire areas of science.

    I feel I gain a greater utility out of buying an iPad than donating the equivalent amount to SETI.

    And that is the point. SETI is not being axed because someone desperately needs 2.5 m. It is shut down because people like you consider it, be honest, worthless.

  7. Gary Miles

    I posted on Fb the other day that while I am nowhere near the conspiracy theorist category, I do find it curious that radio telescopes like ATA and Arecibo have trouble getting funding to the tune of a couple of million dollars while big telescopes like Hubble, Kepler, and James Webb are able to receive billion dollars of funding. Raises questions about the dichotomy in funding.

  8. To Gary Miles: The answer is that space telescopes requite more money for launch and maintenance. This doesn’t mean that space telescope don’t suffer from budget cuts just like the normal telescopes. The situation with James Webb is tragic. The situation with Russian Radioastron is even more tragic…

  9. While I will be sad if they don’t raise their funds, I’m optimistic that it will be a brief hiatus.

    The news coming from the Kepler Mission is changing, enriching our view of the cosmos at this very minute. As we go about our lives, the number of habitable planets in our galaxy is changing from ‘possibly a lot, but possibly almost none’ to ‘yegads, they’re everywhere!’

    I really can’t overstate how exciting it is to be alive during the Kepler Mission (and even participate in a teeny-tiny way with planethunters.org). I wrote an article about it:

    A Plethora of Planets
    http://www.isthisyourhomework.com/a-plethora-of-planets/

    With the host of habitable worlds out there, and our rapidly advancing capability to perform spectra analysis of their atmospheres, it won’t be long before we can get a good answer about how many extra-solar worlds have signs of life.

    As soon as we detect O2 in quantity (or goodness, even the pollution by-products of a technological civilization) in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, we will know that life isn’t impossibly rare, as many suggest. We’ll know that life is practically everywhere it can be, and evolution will take over, practically necessitating intelligence and technological capability on a subset of those life-bearing worlds.

    When we find extra-solar life, we’ll know we aren’t alone, SETI will never have funding problems again.

  10. This looks like an opportunity for someone with a lot of money to do something for SETI and good PR. Maybe something worthwhile of the IAU naming an extrasolar planet after him/her.

  11. Zed

    Hey, Google. Wanna help us out, man?

    Apple? Starbucks? Disney/Pixar?

  12. In an age when we are throwing around hundreds of billions of dollars on things we could do without it seems like this would be an easy problem to solve. A couple million to keep a huge radiotelescope working seems like a no brained.

    The problem may partially be the name of SETI. Like it or not a lot of people in the world think of listening for ET as being on the same level as looking for Bigfoot.

  13. Also, I’d bet the array’s namesake’s life costs more than 2.5 million a day.

  14. Like it or not, if this truly is a democratic society, people get to choose whether to buy tobacco, tomahawk missiles, starbucks coffee, et al, or some more air time for the Allen Array.

    Personally, I’d love to see this country’s military budget (all of them) decreased by at least half and all that money tossed into funding for non-petroleum based energy innovation.

    Though I’m a big fan of SETI, it really wouldn’t be that high up on my list of priorities right now. It seems to me, the primary job of SETI proponents right now should be convincing people why “we should” fund it, not browbeating them for choosing not to.

    (BTW, funkopolis, I assume you meant Paul Allen? Since Steve Allen is dead and all. I don’t imagine the look on his face would be all that entertaining. :) )

  15. MadScientist

    Cool – we can axe SETI and get 5 new Tomahawks per year! Let’s scrap the K-12 educational system as well, then we can really have some fun in Iraq! Woo woo woo woo woo!

    @GaryMiles#7: The reason facilities like Arecibo struggle for funding is simply that the instrumentation is of very limited research value whereas the Hubble has been an incredibly productive platform (with a huge oversubscription for use).

  16. Dave

    “2.5m / 300 m americans = 0.8 cent per person.”

    Okay, this is interesting to note. I still think it’s apples and triangles though, because people ALWAYS spend more money on consumer purchasing than on public projects. People tend to make personal-utility-maximizing decisions with post-tax money. People tend to spend far more on consumer electronics and beer than on charity, for instance. And how much do you donate to your local public school system or to the highway authority per year? Some might argue that this is the reason why taxation is good, because the government might choose to make valuable decisions that are good for public welfare but that spend money the way that individuals would choose to.

    “And that is the point. SETI is not being axed because someone desperately needs 2.5 m. It is shut down because people like you consider it, be honest, worthless.”

    I don’t think that’s an appropriate comparison. He was comparing spending $500 on an iPad to $500 on SETI, but you’re pointing out that the proper comparison should be to spending $0.0083 on SETI. Big difference.

    It’s still the case that it’s not clear where the money should have come from in this case. I know people very close to the situation who do not think that the wrong decision was made. With California’s budget crisis, and the difficulty that other science projects have getting funded, this cut was an appropriate proximate decision. It would be nice if someone with deeper pockets, like NASA, Apple, Google, were to fund the project, but given the current funding situation I can’t say anyone made a bad decision.

  17. MartinM

    Of course, we could spend more on NASA, but what do we cut out of the budget to do that?

    How about, say, five tomahawk cruise missiles? Just to take an example completely at random.

  18. Or just think that 10% of the U.S. military budget would increase the NASA budget by 353%.

    Considering the fact that the U.S. spends more on its military than the military budgets of *the next top 20 countries COMBINED* it seems reasonable that sending some of that money to NASA instead would do a lot of good.

  19. Ad Hominid

    Some of you are missing the point about these kinds of comparisons.

    The real purpose is to let people know in solid, accessible terms just how much, or how little, money is involved. There is a very serious need for this. Back in 2007, Phil told us about a poll that showed the average American hugely over-estimating the percentage of the federal budget allocated to NASA, by a factor of 50 or more. The same is true for NPR (overestimated by a factor of more than 400) and foreign aid (a factor of 25), as indicated in other recent polls.

  20. gdave

    Just to be clear, “Dave” (#14) and I (gdave) are different people, but we do seem to have similar views on this matter.

    @frankenstein monster:

    ” As for tobacco products, Starbucks, iPads, etc., that’s apples and triangles.

    No, it is not. It shows where the priorities lie. 2.5m / 300 m americans = 0.8 cent per person.”

    Comparing the SETI budget to aggregate consumer spending on a particular product or category IS apples and triangles. I don’t personally fund SETI, or any other scientific research project. And UC-Berkeley doesn’t buy my food, pay by bills, or give me stuff. My personal spending decisions have nothing to do with SETI’s budget. Neither do the aggregate spending decisions of American consumers. Of course, I could donate money to SETI (know anywhere I can sign up to donate my 0.8 cent?). But, again, I have a finite personal budget, and there are a lot of worthy causes I could donate my money to. The 2.5 million dollars, divided equally among all Americans, would not be much money – but the same is true of a lot of worthy causes. We still can’t fund them all – I certainly can’t do so personally.

    ” We could double federal and state funding on scientific research and education, and there would still be difficult funding decisions to be made.

    That is false. If the budget doubled, there would be no need to shut down entire areas of science.”

    First, I’m not sure that SETI qualifies as an “entire area of science”. It’s not like all of astronomy everywhere in the U.S. is being shut down. Second, there could always be more science. We could build the Super-Conducting Super Collider. We could get serious about going back to the moon. We could immediately and fully fund, up front, all projected NASA space missions. We could fully fund every grant proposal submitted to the NIH, NSF, and other agencies. I don’t think doubling the budgets would come near covering that. There would still be difficult decisions to be made, even with large over-all budget increases – and SETI might still lose out.

    ” I feel I gain a greater utility out of buying an iPad than donating the equivalent amount to SETI.

    And that is the point. SETI is not being axed because someone desperately needs 2.5 m. It is shut down because people like you consider it, be honest, worthless.”

    I don’t consider SETI worthless. Honestly. I’m not in favor of gutting it. To reiterate, I think it’s cool, I think it’s valuable science, I think it’s money well-spent. But I can’t personally fund it. And the point is that it IS being axed because “someone desperately needs 2.5m” – to wit, UC-Berkeley. The state of California had to drastically cut its budget, resulting in UC-Berkeley having to cut its budget, leading to a decision to cut funding for the Allen Array. And I don’t think they are using the savings to buy iPads, Starbucks coffee, or tobacco products (or Tomahawks or K-12 education, either, for that matter). But I could be wrong.

    I think Dave, in #14 above, particularly in his last paragraph, sums it up quite well.

  21. if this truly is a democratic society

    That’s certainly debatable.

  22. So it seems like the server the image is hosted on is having some trouble keeping up with demand… so I grabbed the image and uploaded it to imgur. Here’s the link: http://i.imgur.com/XCz6n.jpg

  23. gdave

    @MartinM (#17):

    Fine, but now you’ve just increased NASA’s overall budget by $2.5m – there would still be a lot of projects competing with SETI for the funding. It’s not just that SETI would have to be a higher priority than 5 Tomahawks, but that it would have to be a higher priority than all of the other possible alternate uses for that $2.5m.

    @Boingo (#18):

    I think it’s more like more than the next 10 countries combined (not 20), but, yeah, of course, that’s still a lot of money. To some extent, though it’s a false comparison. A lot of the U.S. defense budget goes to personnel costs – about $136b out of $534b in 2010, and the Progressive Policy Institute calculated that the actual personnel costs (including the VA) amount to more like $300b out of a total of $600b. And the personnel costs, per troop, are far higher for the U.S. than they are for, say, China. And while the U.S. has a larger military budget than the next 10 countries combined, it also has more military commitments than the next 10 countries combined, and possesses truly unique capabilities that they next 10 countries can’t match even if they pooled their resources.

    Take the current campaign in Libya, for example. The initial bombardment to disable Libyan air defenses was conducted almost entirely by the U.S. military (largely with those Tomahawks we bought instead of funding SETI). The Europeans have now largely taken over enforcing the no-fly zone, but are having trouble targeting dispersed military units which are attacking civilians, and are trying to get the U.S. to commit more assets – specialized ground attack aircraft like the AC-130 and A-10, and Predator drones – assets which no other country has.

    Still, I’d agree with you that we could probably afford to cut the Pentagon’s budget substantially – maybe even by 10%. But we’ve still got a massive budget deficit to deal with. And plenty of other areas where we could be spending more. Even if we damn the deficit, and redirect 10% of the Pentagon budget to science, how much goes to NASA, and how much to the NIH, the CDC, the NSF, the Department of Energy, or any of the other agencies which fund scientific research? And of the chunk that goes to NASA, how much goes to SETI, and how much to planetary probes, how much to (non-SETI) telescopes, how much to weather satellites, how much to the ISS, how much to the next generation of rockets, how much to basic science research, how much to all of the other stuff NASA does? There will always be difficult trade-offs in spending decisions.

    All of which does not mean I’m in favor of cutting off funding to SETI. But I don’t think “It’s only $2.5m, there’s got to be enough money somewhere” is much of an argument, or much of a plan to gain said funding.

  24. gdave

    @Ad Hominid (#19):

    Fair point. I still think comparing SETI funding to iPad sales is apples and triangles, though.

  25. frankenstein monster

    what a liar.

    I don’t consider SETI worthless. Honestly. I’m not in favor of gutting it. To reiterate, I think it’s cool, I think it’s valuable science, I think it’s money well-spent.

    don’t personally fund SETI, or any other scientific research project. And UC-Berkeley doesn’t buy my food, pay by bills, or give me stuff.

    seems speaking of both corners of the mouth here.
    Yeah I consider valuable blah-blah-blah but blah–blah-blah I don’t give a damn cent to anything that has no immediate benefit for me.

  26. Well, I donated the equivalent of a few Starbucks coffees. Amazingly, the world kept turning, and, what’s more, I managed it without first settling the relative priority of healthcare and defense in the American economy.

    I only wish I knew how to explain to the rest of you how that was possible.

  27. frankenstein monster

    one more thing

    The 2.5 million dollars, divided equally among all Americans, would not be much money – but the same is true of a lot of worthy causes. We still can’t fund them all – I certainly can’t do so personally.

    You could defund literally anything using arguments like that.
    Each time, all is needed to say is “There are other unnamed but surely more worthy causes we can’t afford to fund, so shut up and stop whining” and then dismantle every public spending piece by piece. And I think, that this is, what is all that about.

  28. frankenstein monster

    I managed it without first settling the relative priority of healthcare and defense in the American economy.

    I only wish I knew how to explain to the rest of you how that was possible.

    I think they know already. And the priorities argument is just a fancy excuse that has no other purpose than to hide that they have an ax to grind.

  29. Grand Lunar

    Really puts things in perspective.

    Concerning the defenese budget, it makes me wonder; what could NASA do with with a mere 10% of that?

    Maybe we could ask Starbucks to donate some of their cash to help SETI out….

  30. Jay Fox

    Wasn’t the array built with at least some private funding? Wouldn’t that be where the name came from?

    It is quite obvious that most of us cannot spare part of our budget for this. And that public monies (our taxes) must go to more pressing issues.

    The array would not have been built if it were not for one super-rich guy stepping up and putting some of his *excess* money where his passion was. Just this one guy’s money made it happen. I may be overly simplistic in the details, but the point is that his generosity was great enough that they named the array after him.

    I’m not saying go back to this one guy and ask him for more, but is he really the only super-rich guy who couldn’t spare a couple measly mil to fund this?

    Private money made the array happen in the first place. Private money can keep it going. We cannot expect the government to fund everything. Start the funding search where the real money is.

  31. Eric

    @ frankenstein monster

    I know dozens of people exactly like you — smart people who come across as a lot of really bad words because they act like they know – objectively, absolutely – what is true and right and just for everyone to think and do. What you don’t understand is that your values and priorities have nothing to do with the body politic’s values and priorities. That’s cool, but don’t act like the rest of the species is wrong for not agreeing with you.

    The University of California’s funding from the state is being cut yet again — another massive chunk of change. Half a billion dollars, to be specific – 200 of our little dishes. Spending has to get cut, hopefully on unessential things like the ATA. Or maybe you think the university should lay off a few dozen professors to fund your pet project, or raise tuition even more than projected, gutting what’s left of California’s public higher education even more?

    Sure, our society’s funding priorities are messed up, but – get this – there are, actually, more important things than SETI. If you don’t understand that, you’re not half as smart as you think you are.

  32. Mike Mullen

    The comparison just puts this money in a larger context. $2.5 million dollars is a lot of money to most individuals but in the larger picture of the US economy its small change. The reality is that SETI is a soft target for cutting, makes it look like the politicians are doing something about reducing deficits while protecting their own pet earmarks.

  33. Mike Mullen

    30. Jay Fox Says:

    “It is quite obvious that most of us cannot spare part of our budget for this. And that public monies (our taxes) must go to more pressing issues.”

    You mean like the $500 million spent on the cancelled Ares I because Congress won’t pass a new budget?

    http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2010-12-26/news/os-nasa-ares-rocket-constellation-20101227_1_constellation-moon-program-nasa-s-ares-new-nasa-plan

  34. @ gdave #23 Go to wikipedia: List of countries by military expenditures and do the math. It’s the top 20.

  35. gdave

    @Boingo #33:

    You are right. I was wrong. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. military budget is slightly more than the next 20 countries combined.

  36. Michael Dowling

    I consider SETI to be an experiment with a flawed working hypothesis. How likely is it that intelligent aliens even exist? There is no evidence that life,let alone intelligent life,exists anywhere else in the universe. Having said that,maybe life IS common on other planets,but never evolves to tool using sentient beings employing the scientific method. Our case is likely extremely rare,involving multiple fortuitous events . A more likely scenario would see evolutionary pressure towards intelligence stopping once animals have reached an intellectual level guaranteeing their species’ survival against predation-I am thinking of crows,porpoises,and others of that ilk. Finally,in the remote chance my view is wrong,what is the likelihood that sentient beings have a similar level of technology to ours? The way I see it,they are either hundreds of thousands,or even millions of years ahead of us technologically,or are still living in caves,or swinging from the branches of alien trees. The former group would look on humans as we do ants,and the latter group would have no concept of alien life at all.

  37. Larry

    This discussion would be easier if we recall that SETI isn’t science. It’s exploration.

  38. Damon

    “Sure, our society’s funding priorities are messed up, but – get this – there are, actually, more important things than SETI. If you don’t understand that, you’re not half as smart as you think you are.”

    Really? Like what? Please, explain to me which of those expenditures listed in the photograph is so damn important (nudge nudge, military) that it can’t spare 2.5 million damn dollars a year to support not staring at the ground until we’ve murdered every Arab and his children and sponged up every ounce of oil. Make me understand who is dumber: the fanatical astronomer who thinks all people should think the way he does, or the government apologist who swears by his broken capitalist ideology at the expense of greater knowledge.

  39. On the other hand, as a skeptic, I understand the desire to ask why we should spend this money on SETI, why we should spend it looking for alien intelligences? There are lots of reasons, actually, but I still think the best one is simple: Because we should.

    That’s trivially circular. You don’t seem to be a very good skeptic.

  40. RaginKagin

    Sadness Prevails

  41. Eric

    @ Damon

    You want to have your cake and eat it too. Funding SETI vs. the military is not and was never the choice faced by any actual individual or institution. That’s fine — if your argument is that the way we as a society and body politic act (and make funding choices) reflects some deeper truth about our preferences and priorities. And I think that’s a fair argument to make. (And, actually, it’s the implicit assumption that makes the infograph and most of the commentary here meaningful, since, again, no one ever had to actually make the choice between SETI and Tomahawks.)

    But under this way of thinking, you aren’t considering the way the money is actually being allocated on the ground, so to speak – that is, from what institutions and through what channels it flows. So if we’re just considering “what’s worthwhile to spend money on?” in the abstract without actually thinking about where the money is coming from, well, my objection is even more forceful. How is that $2.5m better spent on SETI than on public education (k-12 or university), or on medical research, or on welfare, or NPR, or any other project or institution that actually delivers an immediate and tangible benefit to the public?

    Basically: you need to do your research and think about reality and actual institutions if you want to argue that SETI should be funded at the military’s expense. (I agree, but that’s not the way things work.) And you need to check your moral compass if you think SETI is more important than education or innumerable other public goods.

  42. Antonis Pappas

    Perhaps they should found a bank, so they can be bailed out…

  43. I’ve enjoyed reading all of the comments, but something’s missing. Nobody has yet said THANK YOU to John at microcosmologist for putting in a lot of effort to create this infographic. So let me offer up my appreciation to John for helping us tell this story in a clear, graphic way – and thanks to Phil too for posting it.
    jill

  44. Ninja R

    Never commented here before although I read daily, but just wanted to write that I admire Plait’s intellectual honesty here in pointing out the false dichotomy. He didn’t have to, and many people would simply go along with the inferred “Look what else we spend money on!” argument.

    Thanks for that.

  45. Nullius in Verba

    Answer’s easy. Just find a bunch of people who want SETI to continue, and have them each write a cheque. For ~250 people it would be about $10k/yr each. Average discretionary income in the US is supposed to be ~$20k/yr a household, I hear. In this internet age, is that so impossible? If you can find more people who like SETI, it’ll be even cheaper. Bargain!

    And every year, they can send you all a report detailing exactly what you got for your money.

  46. oldtaku

    Or perhaps we should stop funding all of those unless they can convince someone to pay for them (other than with someone else’s money).

  47. grgilmore

    SETI does not generate votes. Money to the voters does.

  48. Thameron

    Should? Without any mutual agreed upon goal there are no ‘shoulds’. Obviously most people don’t think we should spend money on it otherwise they would. Do you just not understand that most people don’t care? They don’t care what’s past the borders of their town or TV set. Do you think you can make them care about what’s beyond the atmosphere? As a skeptic I’d need to see evidence for that.

    Take a good look at your species Doctor. Do you really think they are ready for alien contact? Perhaps you’d care to have a go at justifying our conduct towards each other to aliens while whole nations are going up in flames and we are polluting our biosphere into an extinction event? Let the aliens wait until we are ready and we can speak to them with pride in our achievements rather than profound shame. In the meantime SETI can sell coffee.

  49. Michael Dowling

    Or we could have them go cap in hand to a wealthy patron as was done in medieval times.Some of the world’s greatest art was created that way.Mr Gates,are you reading this?

  50. Nullius in Verba

    “Take a good look at your species Doctor. Do you really think they are ready for alien contact?”

    Maybe we’d fit right in. Have you taken a good look at the natural world? Why would other planets be different?

  51. gurmalkeet

    May Be ask the “Rothchild” to fund it, he has more than half of the worlds wealth….

  52. Doc Rocketscience

    The Allen Array is funded by UC Berkeley. Berkeley is funded by the State of California. California is funded by California tax revenue. Drops in taxe revenue leads to a drop in state funding which leads to the Array’s funding being cut.

    Yet, somehow, all of this would be solved if the U.S. Congress spent less on defense?

    I think all of this righteous indignation is making people stupid.

    To all commenters getting angry at other commenters: no one here is arguing that any of the items in the infographic are inherently more valuable than the Allen Array. Especially not national defense. Hell, the Pentagon thinks we spend too much on defense. The counter-argument is that, aside from costing dollars, there is basically no direct connection between any of those items and SETI, and a lot of underfunded, important costs between them.

    Yes, it’s sad that Berkeley cut off the Array. Yes, it’s almost comically stereotypical that SETI would lose funding. No, in the grand scheme, $2.5M is not a lot of money (though at UC Berkeley right now, it may as well be $1 trillion).Yes, huge sums get spent in this country on dubious things. Yes, it would be good if the Array gets its money.

    And, that’s it.

  53. Thameron

    @ 50. Nullius

    Right now we are operating unsustainably. I am assuming other planetary intelligences have either died or reached sustainability in which case they would not be like us. Yes I’ve looked at the natural world. The jungle ecosystems have been around for millions of years. Obviously environmental sustainability on that time scale is possible.

  54. frankenstein monster

    What you don’t understand is that your values and priorities have nothing to do with the body politic’s values and priorities. That’s cool, but don’t act like the rest of the species is wrong for not agreeing with you.What you don’t understand is that your values and priorities have nothing to do with the body politic’s values and priorities. That’s cool, but don’t act like the rest of the species is wrong for not agreeing with you.

    Yeah. there is no common good nor goal. Just everybody’s subjective and mutually incompatible preferences. So stop demanding anything from other people. Just mind your own business, just like anyone should care only about himself and nothing else.

    Forwards to darwinian extinction !!!

  55. Eric

    @ frankenstein monster

    So now you are claiming that defunding the ATA will hasten the evolutionary collapse of the human species? Wow.

    We have governmental institutions to allocate resources in ways that benefit society at large. They aren’t optimal — some of them are even broken. But they’re a lot better than going by what you happen to think is cool (which is really all this is).

  56. frankenstein monster

    So now you are claiming that defunding the ATA will hasten the evolutionary collapse of the human species?

    that is not what I’ve said.

    I say, your ‘everyone for himself philosophy’ will. Defunding ATA, space exploration, and science in general is just a symptom. just another nail in the coffin.

  57. Nullius in Verba

    #53,

    We’re operating perfectly sustainably – but that’s off topic.

    Presumably one thing that will be universal is evolution by natural selection, and it seems to produce organisms that, to some degree, compete. (And cooperate too, of course.) Our present semi-pacifist culture is a very recent development, and considering the rest of human history, the odds would seem to be against this being universal to the same degree. Is it impossible for empires to grow beyond a certain point by violence and exploitation? Anywhere?

    Do we always project our own current cultural aspirations on the Other? Does it say more about us than the aliens?

  58. frankenstein monster

    But they’re a lot better than going by what you happen to think is cool (which is really all this is).

    So, you are saying that trying to find other sentient beings in the universe is nothing of real importance ?

    Com’on What ax to grind do you have ? Show it so that we can point and laugh.

  59. Eric

    @ frankenstein monster

    I don’t have an axe to grind, nor an ‘everyone for himself’ philosophy, although it seems like you have an ‘everyone for what I think is cool’ philosophy.

    Look, in an ideal world, sure, the ATA would be funded. But it’s so far down, importance-wise, on the list of public projects and causes getting screwed in the current political and economic climate that it’s basically a comic farce to ask us to shed a tear for the ATA.

    Do I think SETI is unimportant? No, and I didn’t say that. But do I think there are more important things? Emphatically yes! And that $2.5m _is_ being better spent elsewhere in other UCB endeavors.

  60. Chris

    I wonder if the aliens’ priorities are as messed up as ours?

  61. frankenstein monster

    Liar.

    If you say that SETI is just my personal fancy, then you also say, that it is of no objective value to the entire mankind. So stop lying about the unspecified other things.

    Because one can really use that one against anything. “There are some other more important things, and who are you to want us to finance your private hobby? ” You can tell that literally to anyone.

    So stop this farce. Be honest and tell us about your true motives. Nobody believes your
    empty clichés.

  62. This is a tough call, actually. At a time when there is a record national debt and huge deficit, how can we continue to fund anything except the most essential government services? Remember, there are a lot of people who don’t want SETI to succeed, and there are a lot that think that if it did succeed, it wouldn’t have any practical value. With the deck stack against it like that, is it any wonder it is underfunded, no matter how small its budget?

    Of course there is a lot of basic research that will not be profitable that needs to be done and cannot ever be done by industry, and the government must be the one to fund it. But there is also a lot of research that could be funded privately without regard to returns, and this sounds like a perfect candidate. The question is, how can we develop a system that can fund the things that should be funded by the government and fund the things that should be funded privately in a workable, sustainable manner? Perhaps there should be a discretionary fund set up by the government, with a mandated lower percentage of tax revenue which could also be donated to, with the mandatory percentage disbursed with government control (think NSF) and the remainder disbursed by voting of the donors.

    Of course, this is just a first, wild idea. But unless we can do something like this as a nation, then it really isn’t ethical to fund anything that that isn’t in the “must have” category.

  63. Eric

    @ frankenstein monster

    Wow, your well of rebuttals isn’t that deep, is it?

    Look, I’m just going to say this one more time, even though it didn’t sink in the last five times someone pointed it out. We live in a world with finite resources, where not everything that someone thinks worthwhile can be accomplished.

    You call this the “priorities argument” and say that it’s an empty cliche.

    But it’s not an empty cliche. It’s a truth about the world: some things are more important than others, and working out the ‘general will’ of society is what governmental institutions do. If there were a consensus that the ATA is more important than the teaching and research funding at Berkeley that would have to be axed to pay for it, then the ATA wouldn’t be getting defunded.

    And, again, I’m not saying those institutions are perfect. But all you’re saying is that you know better than everyone else, so disagreeing with you is ipso facto proof of error. I don’t have high hopes to have convinced you to open your mind, but at least I tried. Peace out.

  64. Doc Rocketscience

    Eric said, “And that $2.5m _is_ being better spent elsewhere in other UCB endeavors.”

    I’m not so sure. Rather, I think that that $2.5M isn’t being spent anywhere. That’s what is meant by “budget shortfall”.

    Other than that, I think it may be time to simply stop responding to the monster, who is being either a dick or a troll.

  65. frankenstein monster

    Wow, your well of rebuttals isn’t that deep, is it?

    But it’s not an empty cliche.

    yeah it is.

    blah blah blah …. budget constraints …. blah …. it is just your personal hobby, not something of general importance …. blah blah … (imply that it is just an utopian pipe dream, not something that belongs to the real world ) … blah blah blah, other, more important, yet anonymous stuff, ….blah blah blah… the Institutions have decided and who you are to doubt their decision, you close-minded fool… blah blah blah.

    you can use the same text, copy-paste, without changing a jot, to ex-post justify axing literally anything, because it consist only of general, all encompassing phrases devoid of any concrete substance.

    So either you really want to bulldoze away everything, or you are just using it as an excuse so that you can keep your true motives for yourself.

  66. Funkopolis

    kuhnigget @14 – ah, you’re quite right. 7am sunday and all… I did, of course, mean, Tom Poston. errrr

  67. Eric

    @ Doc Rocketscience,

    Well, it’s just a semantic point. The $2.5m cut from the ATA budget is being “not cut” from some other budget within the campus, which is basically the same as saying it’s being “spent” elsewhere. It’s like the difference between pushing a book off a table and yanking the table out from under the book. But you’re definitely right about mr. monster. Silly me for not discerning the troll earlier.

  68. Ad Hominid

    @53. Thameron Says:

    “Yes I’ve looked at the natural world. The jungle ecosystems have been around for millions of years. Obviously environmental sustainability on that time scale is possible.”

    Indeed. Crocodiles have been around for a couple of hundred million years. They haven’t managed to build an advanced civilization though.
    Otoh, we don’t see them engaging in barbarous behavior like setting off bombs or watching American Idol, so who are we to say how advanced they are?

  69. frankenstein monster

    Silly me for not discerning the troll earlier.

    given that your posts are utterly devoid of any substance, I am asking, who is the troll here ?

  70. ceramicfundamentalist

    “At a time when there is a record national debt and huge deficit, how can we continue to fund anything except the most essential government services?”

    how about taxing the rich? in a nation where the economy grow by leaps and bounds (almost) every year but we can no longer afford the level of education, health care and science funding (just to name a few) that we are used to having, i fail to see why the poor and middle class majority don’t legislatively impose more taxes on the rich.

  71. Martha

    I agree with #70 the tax burden on working people (the most productive sector of the the economy) is way too high. It is time to shift the tax burned to the richest 1% of the population who control most of the wealth (the least productive sector of the economy.) If 99% of us decide to impose more taxes on the rich then they will not have much choice in the matter. That is what democracy looks like.

  72. SLC

    I am sure that the community on this blog will not appreciate this suggestion, but one way NASA could fund projects like SETI would be to cut back on the wasteful manned space program. There is no scientific rational for the manned space program, but there are those in these parts who claim that scientists like Prof. Bob Park and Prof. Steven Weinberg, who have the temerity to suggest this, don’t know what they are talking about.

    However, relative to the SETI project, the implicit assumption in it is that there is a sufficient density of intelligent life in the universe so that there is chance, even if remote, for picking up signals from them. I would point out that the rise of humans on this planet was far from inevitable and resulted from the freak occurrence of the asteroid that did in the dinosaurs (it happened once in the last 250 million years). Absent that collision, we wouldn’t be here today. It is possible, of course, that, as speculated by paleontologist Dale Russell, the Troodons might have evolved into intelligent bird like creatures, absent the collision, but this is a very controversial suggestion in the paleontological community that has little evidence to support it.

    The bottom line, as opined by the late Prof. Mayr, is that the density of intelligent life is probably low, making the chances of picking up signals from such civilizations vanishingly small.

  73. Ad Hominid

    OK, time to play the Sputnik/nationalism card. If a Chinese or Indian or, Cthulhu forbid, an Iranian team happens to make the first ET contact, the recriminations will be so thick and so dark as to blot out the sun. The media will go berserk, politicians will pontificate, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth in Washington. Congress will investigate, and many of the same luddites who scoffed at SETI will howl, “Why didn’t we do this first?”

    If they can observe all this, the ETs themselves will probably be amused.

  74. Funkopolis

    Okay, new solution, unearth a new Gospel of … Phil or whatever, in which Jesus reveals that he will announce his return via radio waves from space. Sit back and let Pat Robertson raise the funds.

  75. Eric

    Funkopolis: check PLUS!

  76. Doc Rocketscience

    Martha, sadly, a large portion of that 99% live under the delusion that they will someday join the 1%, and thus are trying to preemptively keep their own (future) tax burden low. It’s completely irrational, yes, but there it is.

  77. Really enjoying all the comments, both here and on Reddit. It’s been an ultra stellar Sunday thanks to Bad Astronomy. Highlight of the whole deal was Jill chiming in. AWESOME.

    Also, Funkopolis; I want to live there. :)

  78. Jake Featherston

    Axe the gluttonous bureaucracy that runs your country.
    I’m sure America suffers an overbearing bureaucracy like Canada does… or any other country.
    I’m sure you can find 2.5 million dollars somewhere in there, in between the embezzlement and fraud that occasionally goes on.

    The Bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy. -Oscar Wilde

    Take an axe to it, I’m quite sure it doesn’t need to expand THAT much.

  79. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Ok Phil, I have future projected you to the end of the oil spill. Then I future projected you to where we got Bin Laden. Give me a break. I’m 64. If I future project too much more, I won’t be here any more……….I’ll give you one more…….How about that finding extra-terrestrial life…..Here goes……….

  80. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I’m not even touching that asteroid thing………..

  81. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I can’t believe that I do all this for free……….

  82. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I hope that this one doesn’t go beyond my statute of limitations………

  83. QuietDesperation

    I think all of this righteous indignation is making people stupid.

    The political and economic naivete in skeptical and science fan circles is breathtaking at times. It’s quite depressing. Not sure why it is that way. There’s a PhD thesis there for someone.

    OK, time to play the Sputnik/nationalism card. If a Chinese or Indian or, Cthulhu forbid, an Iranian team happens to make the first ET contact,

    Sweet Bouncing Feathery Jesus, you’re right!

    I’m going to add that to my list of things to worry about. There you go… penciled it in right there at #712,190.

    So either you really want to bulldoze away everything.

    Fine by me. Pretty much every current governmental system- education, defense, health care, social security, you name it- needs to be completely dismantled and rebuilt brick by brick into something that is at the very least sane. Honestly, the blindness some of you exhibit to government corruption is astonishing. They (elected officials) don’t even hide it anymore. That’s why I can’t get excited by SETI funded or not. It’s completely lost in the noise… much like potential alien signals, I guess. ;-)

    What would NASA do with 10% of the defense budget? Piss it away, that’s what. From whence comes this faith in anything governmental anymore? Have the last 50 years taught you nothing?

  84. QuietDesperation

    in between the embezzlement and fraud that occasionally goes on.

    occasionally??!!!1!!2!

    Here in California, as stories come out over the last few years, it’s getting hard to figure out what parts of the state budget are NOT lost on embezzlement and fraud, or the legalized versions that the legislature voted in for itself. They are raping this state into bankruptcy, and all anyone wants to do is give them more money. It’s utter madness.

  85. Ad Hominid

    Buy a clue, QD. I am not really advocating that we do this to forestall foreign researchers. I do think that is what would happen though.

  86. Hugo Schmidt

    Awesome. That is one of the sharpest graphics I’ve seen. Mind you, as a strict “no taxes” guy, I figure we could raise that voluntarily.

  87. Sems to be a Special Pleeding arguement for a pet project.

    While the cost may only be $2.5M/year and 0.8c/year/tax-payer – that 0.8c will quickly turn into dollars, then tens of dollars, and then hundreds of dollars per taxpayer if *everyone* in a similar situation made the same arguement you did.

    SETI has discovered some useful things in the past, but the balance of evidence is that it’s not going to make any major discoveries in the next five years. If intelligent life was everywhere then it would be a low hanging fruit discovery, and its not. In fact if intelligent life was everywhere, we’d probably have gone the way of the tasmanian wolf several million years ago.

    Fundamentally, ATA is not a charity, but a commercial astronomy product, and has gone of line because as a commercial product, it can’t find any customers. This is an entirely unsurprising turn of events for a privately owned luxury facility for a tiny and specialised market. Give it a five years (or even five months) and they’ll unmothball when they find a new customer, and I wish them good luck, but until then I feel no obligation to bail out a flawed business model.

    In the meantime the ATA has done another important job and valadated the concept behind the SKA.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_Kilometer_Array
    Which seems to have better funding. Maybe SETI can do a deal to co-rent this facility with whoever is using it as the primary customer.

  88. Iggy

    http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/65_years.png
    “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space–each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

  89. I estimate If every adult male in the U.S. donated $1.00 today (~75 million), SETI could be funded at its current level for 30 years.

  90. #48 @Thameron:

    Do you think you can make them care about what’s beyond the atmosphere?

    I believe Phil does think that; in fact he writes a blog, “Bad Astronomy”, based on that idea. You should try reading it sometime.

  91. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    I keep waiting for a future projection award, but my phone never rings………I’ll just have to settle for a no bell.

  92. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Damn! I really did it!

  93. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    The US Government used billions of dollars, 10 years of time, and the lives of many brave people………..BP used billions of dollars and many months of time……….I got it done in less time, for free. Who you gonna call?

  94. Joseph G

    This makes me sad.

  95. Given the distributed nature of the analysis part of this project it looks a perfect fit for funding by Google.

  96. Joseph G

    On a different tack, though, can we reexamine some of our assumptions about SETI for a minute?
    Now, I happen to think that the mission of SETI, the goal of the project, is eminently worthy, and addresses possibly the most important philosophical and scientific questions of our time.
    But.
    That inverse-square law is a bitch.
    I don’t know the specifics, but I’ve seen estimates that our technology could not pick out a radio-saturated civilization such as ours from even relatively short distance, on the order of several dozen light-years. What if we’re awash in faint traces of ET radio signals, but we simply don’t have the sensitivity to detect them?

  97. réalta fuar

    @gdave and Doc Rocketscience I hope you two realize that you make entirely too much sense for this blog? Personally, I’ve supported the SETI program for a long time, but if its leaders can’t raise the money they need from private sources then they’ve failed and should be replaced. Yes, I know it’s harder, MUCH harder, to raise operating costs than to build things with folk’s names on them, but so should the heads of this project.

  98. How about this…

    Ask people if they would be willing to spend $1 on SETI. Not $1 per month. Not $1 per year. But $1. Period.

    I’d like to think that at least half the people in this country would say “sure, why not”. (And some will put in much more than $1.) If you find resistance, then simply say “make it $10, and I’ll give you a large cup at Starbucks — your choice — absolutely free”.

    You now have $150M. Put $2.5M to the first year’s budget, and invest the remaining $147.5M.

    Even with inflation, and the cost of running SETI going up each year, you have all the funding you need for centuries to come.

    Problem solved, thank you very much.

    Just send your check or money order to…Ken(&+-_*^&%&^ #*&^+*&
    NO CARRIER

  99. MrQhuest

    Hmm. How many people have downloaded and run Seti@home.
    I wonder if they could be convinced to pony up a few bucks each to save the project…
    If someone can raise $1000 for something really stupid via twitter (forgot who that was) perhaps someone can put together a fund raiser to save the ATA.

    MrQ

  100. BJN

    Last week I gave SETI $100, my second annual contribution. I’d love for some tech billionaire to pick up the entire tab, but unlike many folks here I’m willing to put up some of my own money in order to demonstrate my support by example. I shouldn’t need to point out that talk is cheap, but apparently I do.

  101. CA

    See Dr. James E. McDonald (physics, U. AZ), “Science In Default.” We should not be rewarding mainstream U.S. science for their efforts in this area, because their efforts have in many ways been cowardly.

  102. Tim

    ‘The Ultimate Search’, surely Google could do something with that?

  103. Chris T

    The political and economic naivete in skeptical and science fan circles is breathtaking at times. It’s quite depressing. Not sure why it is that way. There’s a PhD thesis there for someone.

    What really amazes me is how self-professed skeptics are frequently the ones most blind to their own biases. It’s as though having declared themselves skeptics, everything they do or believe must be true. They apply skepticism in a superficial way, but will not apply it to their own beliefs or values.

    That quite a few (including the author) on this thread cannot seem to imagine that other people can have other sets of values is rather apparent. The concept that if a person believes something is not worth doing means that any amount of money above zero is too much seems absent.

    No amount of pleading or diagrams is going to change a person’s mind if they do not share your values in the first place. To do that, you have to show how it is worthwhile under their own value system.

    For the record, I support looking for alien intelligence, but think the probabilities are far too low to make radio SETI worthwhile at this time. Once we have a way of narrowing the search, I will reassess.

  104. Gary Ansorge

    A blog commenter remarked that possibly the real reason we haven’t heard anything with SETI is that everyone is transmitting in compressed, digital code. To SETIs instruments, he suggested, it would look like noise.

    That seems too easy an explanation for me but maybe he’s right.

    One should also note: the worlds (2009) GDP was 56 TRILLION dollars. What’s a lousy 2.5 million compared to that?

    Maybe some rich person will pick up SETIs slack.

    Gary 7

  105. Thameron

    91. Vagueofgodalming Says:

    I believe Phil does think that; in fact he writes a blog, “Bad Astronomy”, based on that idea. You should try reading it sometime.

    Oh, I do obviously, but I have an interest in what happens out there. The people who don’t are watching American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, or playing golf. I don’t think the good doctor is reaching them.

  106. Michael S

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contact_%28film%29
    “Contact grossed approximately $171 million in worldwide box office totals. ”
    People would rather watch a movie about it than actually search for them.

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_%282009_film%29
    “It also became the first film to gross more than $2 billion”
    Ditto

  107. fernando

    i had SETI in my computer, but they changed the software many years ago and it turned confuse to me… with the years i have grown skeptic

  108. Tomahawk cruise missiles cost only half a million dollars each?

    Damn, that’s only half the price of a Phoenix air-to-air missile! I had no idea a cruise missile would be so cheap. Your average well-off suburbanite could buy one for himself just by selling his house!

  109. Jacob Allred

    These infographics are pointless. Everything cost a fraction of the cost of something else, but that doesn’t mean every program can be saved. We can’t magically come up with $2.5 million from “somewhere”.

  110. “Because we should”? What kind of logic is that? Who says we should? What are the reasons? What are the benefits?

    How about giving me 2.r million per year? Why, Because you should and I want it. IS that good enough? I promise I’ll pump most of it right back into the economy, so it is really no loss.

  111. Brian Too

    Going to the message of the OP graphic, I get that many of those cited items might seem like better cutting targets in order to fund SETI.

    However I find that the only one I really, truly, totally want to cut as an alternative to cutting SETI is the last one. Not just the Citi exec though. All of them!

    Not a rational response you understand. We’re talking visceral emotion here. In fact I can think of hundreds of more deserving causes than the finance executives, starting with people who do their jobs and do not destroy their countries.

  112. Do we really want the government to do this stuff? They should be building roads. We (the people) should be searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Government is a poor learner. People are natural learners if they have some skin in the game (which we all do here).

    “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

  113. Rosemary

    I’m sad about the moth-balling of SETI, too – but I agree with gdave. Not your finest posting, Phil. It’s not up to your usual superb standard. Bad day?

  114. Matt

    @gdave gave the best answer..i’ve noticed one thing scientist are horrible at..economics..i guess it’s easy to say “Because we Should” when it’s not your money to spend. As far as I can tell SETI is still doing fine under private funding and that’s how it should be. I don’t support government wasting it on the military either BTW..the USA military is more than strong enough to defend this country.

    @Dave said “. People tend to spend far more on consumer electronics and beer than on charity, for instance. And how much do you donate to your local public school system or to the highway authority per year? Some might argue that this is the reason why taxation is good, because the government might choose to make valuable decisions that are good for public welfare but that spend money the way that individuals would choose to.”

    that’s the problem with central planners..you feel that it’s your choice to decide what people do with their money and you somehow think that things like roads,schools,public welfare wouldn’t exist unless government provided them, ignoring that a lot of those same things were done by the private sector until government took them over…if we re going to have taxes it should be at the state and local level NOT the federal level..this country was founded on federalism..that’s why the founders called it the United “States” (plural) we are unified in defense but each state is to have it’s own sovereignty..”He who governs close governs best” is the best rule of thumb

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