For nearly 40 years, the SETI Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Mountain View, has been searching for intelligent life forms beyond Earth. A philanthropic gift of $200 million, announced last week, is bringing this quest closer to reality.
The windfall came from the estate of Franklin Antonio, co-founder of Qualcomm, a communications chip company, who died last year at the age of 69. Antonio was well-known for his philanthropic contributions to scientific endeavors and spent more than a decade supporting the SETI Institute and its mission to find extraterrestrial life.
“Guided by our core mission and Franklin Antonio’s vision, we now have the opportunity to elevate and expedite our research and make new discoveries to benefit all humanity for generations to come,” said SETI President and CEO Bill Diamond, in a press release.
“In his memory, the SETI Institute will continue its pursuit of one of the biggest and most profound questions in all of science, a question as old as humanity itself – are we alone in the universe?” he added.
Founded in 1984, SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – started as an offshoot of NASA’s Ames Research Center, with the idea of finding alien life by listening to communication signals in space. At its peak in the early 1990s, the program received $10 million a year in federal funds to design and build radio telescopes to detect extraterrestrial life, according to the institute’s website.
But federal support for the program ended in 1993 and, since then SETI has been relying on private funding and philanthropic gifts to fund its research on alien communications. The $200 million grant is the largest donation the institute has ever received, according to Simon Steel, deputy director of SETI’s Carl Sagan Center for Research.
“Being a nonprofit and relying on private donations, it’s sort of a hand-to-mouth existence. And what this award will do for the institute is to ensure its future, that we can guarantee that we will be operating our telescopes indefinitely,” Steel said, noting that the institute receives limited federal funding for some of its other research activities.
With a background in engineering and communications, Antonio played a pivotal role in upgrading the institute’s radio telescope facility near Redding. Antonio offered financial support and hands-on technical assistance to the facility.
“I think he loved the idea that this is developing a really sophisticated communications tool. And the fact that the communication you're trying to have is with aliens makes it even more special,” Steel said.
The $200 million grant will continue the institute’s work with radio telescopes, but it also will have a wider reach, Steel said. It will support new research positions, fellowships and international partnerships as well as outreach efforts, with a particular focus on educating the public about the institute's scientific activities.
“Ever since I arrived, we've always said with lots of different projects, 'what if we could do this? That would be really amazing, that would be really beneficial.' And suddenly the ‘what if’ became a reality. And that's very, very exciting,” Steel said.