Researchers from 11 institutions have set up the UK SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research Network (UKSRN), and they’re asking for funding of as much as £1 million a year to help them.
“If we had one part in 200 – half a percent – of the money that goes into astronomy at the moment, we could make an amazing difference. We would become comparable with the American effort,” Dr Alan Penny, the network’s coordinator, told BBC News.
It won’t be the first time that British researchers have been involved in SETI projects. From 1998 to 2003, the 76m Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank took part in Project Phoenix, which looked for radio signals around 800 nearby, Sun-like stars. Nothing was found.
Now, the Lovell Telescope is connected by optical fibres to six other radio telescopes dotted around the UK, spanning a distance of 217km. Called e-MERLIN, this network would provide a more powerful tool to search for signs of distant alien civilisations.
But critics argue that the UK’s dwindling astronomy budget should be directed towards other research. Currently, most funding for UK astronomy research comes from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), but astrophysicist Professor Paul Crowther at Sheffield University doubts the STFC will be able to support the new SETI network.
“[British astronomy] faces the prospect of a reduced volume of research grants, and participation in future high-impact facilities is threatened,” he told BBC News. “I would be shocked if STFC’s advisory panels rated the support of UKSRN higher than such scientifically compelling competition.”