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The massive Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico was used in a NASA search for alien radio signals before Congress canceled it in 1993.

David Parker/Science Source

University research center will search for extraterrestrial intelligence

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is getting a home base. On 1 March, Pennsylvania State University in State College will announce the first contributions to a campaign that hopes to raise $110 million for the new Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center with endowed professorships and a degree-granting graduate program. It would be one of just a few academic SETI research centers and, if plans are realized, it could be the first to offer courses from the undergraduate to Ph.D. level. Some astronomers say it would provide a badly needed boost to a subdiscipline that has long suffered from neglect.

“There really isn’t an academic ecosystem for the field as a whole,” says Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, who will serve as the PSETI Center head. “You can’t work on it if you can’t hire students and postdocs.”

Financial backing for SETI research has been scarce ever since 1993, when the U.S. Congress banned NASA from funding it. “We became the four-letter word at NASA,” recalls astronomer Jill Tarter, a co-founder of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, one of the few other centers to support SETI research with nongovernmental funds.

The cutoff in federal funding has had a long-term, chilling effect, Wright says. He has identified just five people with Ph.D.s in research related to SETI. “It takes a special kind of person to go into a field that’s unfunded and holds few job prospects,” says Wright, who has, until now, had to pursue SETI as a hobby and sideline to his main job as an exoplanet investigator.

The new Penn State center would hire faculty and postdocs and introduce undergraduate and graduate courses. It could eventually offer grants to researchers outside the university.

So far, Penn State has received two private gift pledges totaling $3.5 million, which will create a new professorship within the astronomy department and subsidize other SETI research. Although that leaves a considerable sum to be raised, Wright considers it a good start, showing that “this idea is something that resonates.” He believes, moreover, that Penn State is an ideal base for SETI research because it has the pieces needed for such a far-reaching, interdisciplinary enterprise: a strong astronomy department, a NASA-funded Astrobiology Research Center, and the Center for Astrostatistics. The university also serves as the hub for the worldwide Astrophysical Multimessenger Observatory Network.

Andrew Siemion, director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, applauds the Penn State effort. “Having SETI in the school’s curriculum gives a stamp of approval to the field that is very important,” says Siemion, one of the five aforementioned Ph.D.s who never thought he could carve out a career in SETI.

Tarter is similarly enthused. She sees the plans unveiled by Penn State as part of a “resurgence” of the field. She is excited by the steady stream of newly discovered worlds and is anxious to find out whether potentially habitable planets are, in fact, inhabited by intelligent life. “I don’t think you can ask the question of life beyond Earth and stop at microbes,” Tarter says.