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Extraterrestrial First Contact: Higher Ed and the Search

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Higher education institutions- colleges and universities across the globe- are an important part of our human system of knowledge. Not only do they provide training in many academic disciplines, they teach people how to learn. Higher Ed institutions also support research that is fundamental to our scientific system. So, should higher education devote time and energy to the consideration of extraterrestrial life? It is an area called astrobiology and has many scientists and researchers involved. National space organizations, such as NASA, conduct research in astrobiology. The study of, and search for, extraterrestrial intelligence is another matter entirely. It suffers from a lack of funding, especially from government sources.

Studies show that many humans believe that extraterrestrial intelligence exists in the universe. A 2017 survey by an organization called Glocalities reached 26,000 thousand people in 24 countries. The results showed 47 percent of respondents believed that extraterrestrial intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe. So, why wouldn’t SETI research get more funding and respect? The answer is, of course, the ha-ha effect. People who consider such things are viewed as odd, at best, and crazy, at worst. The surveys show that may be primarily an institutional problem, not a public perception. Institutions are worried that their reputation will be tarnished by supporting SETI research.

The academic leaders in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the understanding of issues connected to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence often stand alone. If they are lucky they have the support of an astrophysics or astronomy department at their institution. But it is also likely they are fighting each and every day for respect and funding. Researchers say it is a career risk to pursue research involving extraterrestrial intelligence.

The big dog in the university study of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is U-C Berkeley. Cornell University, MIT, Harvard, Arizona State University, and Ohio State University also play large roles in research. But there are not many U.S. institutions that openly support significant SETI research. Just look at the reaction the chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department received when he suggested scientists consider the possibility that a large object traveling past Earth, and with an origin outside the solar system, might have been created by extraterrestrial intelligence. Dr. Avi Loeb didn’t say Oumuamua was created by extraterrestrials. He merely suggested that we consider the idea and look for scientific evidence to support or refute the claim. In the end, that evidence proved to the contrary. But the simple suggestion that academics widen their perspective to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence provoked a huge backlash in the scientific world.

I understand the fear. There are many people who espouse theories about extraterrestrial intelligence without any facts to support those theories. And if they do have facts they are from less than credible sources. Still, is it wise for us to let fringe groups impact how the wider scientific community does research and considers new ideas?

It was heartening when Penn State University announced last year a graduate class in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The class is now officially in the college catalog. And Penn State, under the leadership of astronomy and astrophysics professor Jason Wright, is taking another bold step with the formation of PSETI Center: The Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center. It is envisioned as an academic hub for SETI research, learning, workshops, and conferences. It is something SETI researchers have been hoping would happen for many years. As Scientific American reports, there are only seven people who have received PhDs based on SETI research.

I understand that there are many other academic fields and specialties that are more important to humans right now. We are experiencing what I would call a “pants on fire” moment. What I mean by this is that when your pants are on fire it’s tough to consider things that are less immediate. Our pants on fire moment is dominated by climate change, environmental collapse, bacteriological risks, war, political divisions, and a fierce worldwide immigration debate. However, it must be pointed out that if we do contact extraterrestrial intelligence someday, and if that intelligence is able to communicate with us quickly, it would be also be a pants on fire moment for humanity.  It seems prudent to spend at least a tiny amount of time and energy to prepare ourselves for the possibility.


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