Global Issues TED Prize

A new way to fund space exploration, from 2009 TED Prize winner Jill Tarter

Posted by: Morton Bast

Astronomer Jill Tarter wants us all to ask the question, “Are we alone?” As director of the SETI Institute (it stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Tarter is dedicated to seeking the answer, as well as to imparting upon one and all the importance of the search. In 2009, Tarter was awarded the prestigious TED Prize and founded the website SETILive.org, where people from around the world can register and help with the hunt for alien signals. Tarter’s wish: to “empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” Ruling out extraterrestrial intelligence at our current point of research, Tarter says, would be akin to scooping one glass of water from the ocean and concluding that there are no fish.

In the three years since Tarter’s TED Prize, the SETI Institute has continued its search, amassed a huge wealth of data and even begun identifying Earth-like planets. They’ve also continued their mission of outreaching their message and educating the public about the full scale of possibilities out there. To that end, Tarter created the TED-Ed lesson, “Calculating the Odds of Intelligent Alien Life,” stressing the full scope of how much is left to be discovered.

But SETI, like many scientific endeavors, has struggled with persistent funding problems. Their newest initiative is a partnership with Uwingu, a private company whose mission is to create a new way to fund research. SETI and Uwingu have been working on apps that will support space exploration as they educate. However, Uwingu needs the funds to launch their products. The company is looking to crowdsource $75K through IndieGoGo.com before September 14. Which means that you can pitch in to help.

Below, read an impassioned letter from Jill Tarter about why the success of this fundraising effort is so crucial, and so exciting.

 “We all have a vested interest in this one — let’s get Uwingu launched!

Independent of the November presidential election results, future funding for scientific research (especially curiosity-driven, space-related exploration, research and education) will be declining into the foreseeable future.  The drop will be steeper if sequestration is triggered in the federal budget process.  As we wring our hands and lament one another, the phrase ‘alternative funding approaches’ repeatedly crops up in the conversation. But who or what are these?  And how do we access them?  Is there any there, there?

Uwingu LLC is doing more than wringing their collective hands — they are trying to become a source of alternative funding for us! 

This small startup intends to launch their product line in late October (just in time for the Christmas shopping season) and then pool the profits from their marketing efforts to create a fund whose main function will be to make research grants to those of us who can make the best cases for our research proposals.  Will it work?  Who knows? The folks behind this are some of the superstars in our astronomical universe (Alan Stern, Geoff Marcy and a handful of others), but that doesn’t mean they will succeed at making money. Can they really create something like an ‘Angry Birds for space’?  Certainly they won’t succeed if they can’t get started.

Uwingu envisions a $10M-100M annual portfolio for grant making.  That’s small compared with NASA or NIH research budgets, but significant on the scale of NSF astronomy, and I’ll bet it could nicely finance some of your own research ambitions.  But there’s a HUGE long way from here to that lofty goal.  As with any startup, funds are needed to provide early support for the team until receipts from sales start paying the bills and earning a profit.  I want to give them a chance, and I hope you’ll join me.  Uwingu estimates that they will need $75,000 to get started and they are trying to raise that money by crowdfunding at Indiegogo.com.  There are only 7 days left to that campaign, and they still need to raise another $40,000.  You can help them, and perhaps also help our SETI team at the SETI Institute.

Uwingu will evenly split every dollar they raise above their $75,000 threshold with us.  So I’ve got a very personal and vested interest in reaching out to you to become a supporter of this new venture.  Our own SETI team is in dire need of funding — these early returns will be most welcome — but it is the future opportunities that have compelled me to work with Uwingu rather than just asking for your direct support of SETI research and the Allen Telescope Array.  Bricks and mortar, or in our case antennas, are known to be much easier philanthropic ‘sells’ than funding for annual operations and upkeep. Many of you helped us out last summer when we asked for additional funds to cover the expenses of bringing the ATA out of the hibernation necessitated by the withdrawal of our UC Berkeley operating partners when they ran out of funding.  We are back on the air at the ATA studying all the newly discovered exoplanets!  SRI International Inc. is our new partner in the array, but we still need to find funding for our small team of SETI researchers who are constantly coming up with ideas of how to improve the ongoing searches.  We will need these funds this year, and next, and on into the future.  As part of our overall fundraising portfolio, it would be wonderful to be able to propose to the Uwingu Fund for supporting our team each year, and implementing their clever ideas.

Entrepreneurial space ventures intend to make a profit for their shareholders and founders — and in doing so change the way we access space.  Uwingu LLC intends to make a profit for those of us wanting to pursue space exploration, research and education.  Please help them and our SETI team by over subscribing this round of crowdsource fundraising.  Let’s start creating those necessary ‘alternative funding approaches’ today.” 

Become a Uwingu sponsor by heading to this website.