The Mountain View-based SETI Institute announced April 22 that it is powering down its array of antennae used to comb the cosmos for hints of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Jill Tartar, director of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, said that cuts on the federal and state level, coupled with the recession, have resulted in a dearth of funding at the University of California, Berkeley, which runs the antennae array for SETI.
According to Tartar, U.C. Berkeley recently informed SETI that it cannot afford to operate the Allen Telescope Array -- SETI's field of large and small satellite-dish-shaped antennae in Northern California. It is used to monitor space for transmissions, in the hopes of finding a signal that may have been broadcast intentionally or inadvertently by sentient beings elsewhere in the universe.
The university will put the array, located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory between Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta, into "hibernation," meaning that no signals will be collected for SETI research.
"A perfect storm" of cuts led to the U.C. Berkeley decision, Tartar said. There was the federal government's inability to pass a budget, for one -- "It's hard to start new projects on a continuing resolution," she said. Additionally, cuts from the National Science Foundation, which reduced its University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley, forced the university to cut its staff at Hat Creek by about 90 percent.
California's budget woes also loomed large, as public universities across the state are feeling the impact of an estimated $25.4 billion budget shortfall. And complicating matters further, the recession has made it difficult to raise private money, Tartar said.
Still, Tartar said, SETI is doing all it can to raise the money to keep the Allen Telescope Array -- named after Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft -- up and running. That includes seeking major funding sources as well as accepting private individual donations on its website, SETI.org.
Tartar said that the work SETI is doing is highly valuable -- even in trying economic times.
"The human race has been asking this question for millennia," she said. "We have been asking ourselves how we fit into the cosmos for as long as we've had recorded history."
Taking a long view of human history, Tartar spoke whimsically about the potential for SETI to bring about a fundamental paradigm shift in human consciousness.
"Ultimately, I think SETI is incredibly important to help people everywhere step back a bit and look at themselves, and look at humanity, with a more cosmic perspective," Tartar said. "From space you don't see international borders."
Tartar believes that if SETI were to find conclusive evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth, it would "trivialize the differences between humans overnight."