With NASA Budget Cuts Looming, SETI Eyes Private Funding

With NASAexpected to reduce expenditures on astrobiology by half in the year ahead, theSETI Institute--a major recipient of that funding--is seeking private money tohelp support the nearly 50 scientists it has on staff studying the origin,evolution and distribution of life in the universe.

Officialsat the Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit announced the fund-raising driveOct. 17 as part of a broader effort to sustain its astrobiology endeavors overthe long haul by establishing the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life inthe Universe to eventually establish more endowed chairs and create additionallaboratory capabilities.

[Full disclosure, the SETI Institute is a content partner with Space News' online sister publication, SPACE.com].

But thecenter's immediate goal, according to Scott Hubbard, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and the Carl Sagan chair at SETI, is raising $4 million to $6 millionover the next three years to sustain its top astrobiology researchers. Hubbard,the former director of NASA Ames Research Center, said about half of theinstitute's $14 million annual budget comes from NASA in the form ofcompetitively awarded, peer-reviewed research grants.

NASA'sastrobiology budget, the source of most of that grant money, is facing a steepdecline. Under NASA's 2007 budget proposal, currently before Congress, the U.S. space agency would spend $32.5 billion on astrobiology in the year ahead--half ofwhat it spent on astrobiology in 2005.

Hubbardsaid in an interview that if NASA goes through with the proposed cut, SETIwould expect to see its NASA grant funding reduced by about 20 percent--makingit impossible to sustain without outside help the nearly 50 astrobiologyresearchers it has on staff.

Astrobiology,a discipline NASA has been funding for about 10 years, is the hardest hit inNASA's proposal to reduce its overall scientific research and analysis spendingby about 15 percent in the year ahead. NASA is under pressure from the hundredsof research scientists it funds and their allies in Congress to reverse courseon the proposed reductions, and the SETI Institute is part of that fight.

But Hubbardsaid SETI's intent in establishing the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Lifein the Universe is to introduce a measure of long-term stability to theastrobiology community, not protest the current proposed cuts.

"Cleary[SETI Chief Executive Officer] Tom Pierson and [SETI trustee] Barry Blumbergand the entire science community are working the political process to try toget the funds restored," Hubbard said. "But federal funding for anything can goup and down, so let's try to broaden our portfolio and be here for the longhaul and not just wring our hands about it."

SETI is nostranger to seeking private funding to sustain its activities. The institute'swell-known radio searches for signals from other intelligent life in theuniverse has been entirely funded by about $6 million a year in privatedonations since Congress cut off federal funding for the efforts in 1993.

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