Federal government cuts have shut down the radio telescope used by SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Ironically, it was a form of alien intelligence, for want of a better description, that shut it down- Accountancy.
The SETI radio telescope monitoring for alien signals ran out of funds. This happened at a time when information from the Kepler telescope had found 50 possibly habitable worlds.
One of the problems with pure research is that even the methods have to be invented. SETI started pretty much from scratch, with an idea and enthusiasm, and followed up with a few interesting incidents.
SETI, based at Berkeley, is a sort of public interest platform, which even allows people to participate in the work on their own home computers. This is a sort of “citizen science”, backed up by the pros, like Galaxy Zoo and other sites processing the gigantic amounts of information produced by space research.
Rather bravely, SETI refers to this setback as “hibernation”, and makes the point that it does get data from elsewhere, so the program as a whole hasn’t been knocked out. It’s debatable, however, whether lack of direct access to raw data can be said to be the best approach to arguably the most important research being done on a subject which fascinates humanity.
That subject just also happens to be one of the most important issues imaginable. The mathematical probability is infinitely in favor of life elsewhere in the universe. Such a discovery would be like the discovery of the New World, amplified a billion times. A single hard fact would change human perspectives forever.
Government funding, however, isn’t based on hard facts. It’s based on soft options. Nothing says loving like something from the spreadsheets, and the quest to save money to spend on politics had to cut something. So SETI got cut. When you’ve got a species of office boys and girls running the nation, anything to do with science has to descend into baby talk to get funding. If the baby talk isn’t understood, the funding doesn’t happen.
This isn’t the end. There will be no end to the search, however it’s done, until a result is achieved. In the meantime, a not-entirely-unexpected mediocrity and smallness of vision will presumably be the norm.
As with the rest of the American space program, sic transit gloria.