In my previous post, I mentioned the “adopt-a-scientist” program of the SETI Institute which offers individual to sponsor the research of any SETI researchers. Apparently the article published in space.com got noticed and I received a few emails from journalists around the world asking for details and several of them reported our stories.

My friend David Bois wrote a short article for the Tonic.com website. If you don’t know this website I encourage you to subscribe to it. It contains some interesting pieces of information that you will not read in main stream media. Indeed tonic.com defined itself as “a media company focused on the good that happens each day in neighborhoods all around the world. ”

I was also in contact with Nora Schluter from Hamburg, Germany who wrote an article for the Financial Times Deutschland. I don’t speak German but my colleague, Jens Biele from DLR, graciously accepted to translate it for me. He is a busy guy who deals every day with ESA space missions and thus travels around the world on a regular basis, so I am very grateful that he spent some times on this. Below his translation:


Infinite Orphans

Those who feel the weight of their social conscience but are not up to adopting a square metre of rain forest, can find a more eloquent protegé. Even alien-researchers need godfathers.

By Nora Schlueter, Hamburg, Germany

Jeff Breidenbach and Jeff Marshall are proud adoptive parents. Their fosterling has dark hair, a French accent and cost them 5000$ a year. Yet they found Franck Marchis not in a a orphanage of a threshold country but on the website of the Californian SETI institute, a research facility which searches the universe for traces of life – particulary intelligent life.

Since 50 years the quest for intelligence in space is scientifically respectable. The private SETI institute exists since 25 years and collaborates with NASA and other serious research institutions. Yet financially speaking, SETI could be better off, finds SETI spokesperson Karen Randall. Thus she gave her scientists up for adoption. For a little money in return. And to make clear to people that “we are not looking for small green men all day here” as Marchis expresses it.

On the contrary, his work as astronomer is very tangible. He investigates the atmosphere of Jupiter’s moon Io and traces volcanism there. For the proud godfather Jeff Breitenbach it was love at first click – scientifically speaking: “Franck can handle Lasers and electronics the whole day and – hopefully – sees things, which nobody before has seen”. He, and his business partner Jeff Marshall run an Internet service and reserve a portion of their earning every year for a good cause. “Franck was the first one for whom we donated twice”.

Yet, a scientist is not cheap: the price list of the SETI programme “Adopt a Scientist” starts at 1000$, but for that you get a signed photograph of the scientist and a yearly report about what was done with the money. Those who wish to accompany their protégé to work must give at least 25,000$.

By a lucky coincidence, Jeff Breitenbach made a personal meeting much cheaper: “I was on Hawaii, when the SETI people told me that my scientist is just around the corner”.

A cosy picknick was different from what was in store for him: a breakneck drive to 4200m high volcano Mauna Kea, where the Keck observatory is situated amidst of snow. Marchis needs telescopes which view is blurred as little as possible by Earth’s atmosphere. Future visits will have to take place at one of the driest areas in the world: the the Atacama desert in the highlands of Chile, where the giant VLT observatory nowadays gives better views than the Hubble space telescope.

On their website, the SETI institute promises great adventure to the godfathers, an advance to infinite spaces. Does none of the scientists their seriousness being jeopardized with that much Star-Trek atmosphere? “At the SETI institute, everybody is very open for new ideas”, says Randall.

Franck Marchis, too, sees the thing pragmatically: He belongs to a growing number of researchers in the USA who do not have a tenure track position, but receive funds dedicated to projects. Thus he can well use money and publicity. Also, the adoption process has developed into a popular donation source in the US: from seal babies and vines in Napa Valley to soldiers you can adopt everything and everybody meanwhile – and show it  proudly in the Internet.

The program is a big success, says Randall.

Yet she does not want to quote exact numbers of adoptions. “We don’t want that the program degenerates into a popularity contest”.

There is no envy among the colleagues, says Seth Shostak, SETI- Astronomer and author of the book “Confessions of an Alien Hunter”. He grants his colleagues every help: “It is so bad to be an orphan!”

SETI seems to attract especially patrons from the computer industry. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen put $25 millions into building radio telescopes in the Californian desert, where they listen to extraterrestrial signal for the SETI institute. Also, Intel founder Gordon Moore and Sun Microsystems appear in the sponsor list.

Behind the enthusiasm, Breitenbach surmises the bad conscience of the computer industry, which in the last decades deprived important research areas like human spaceflight of the best talents: “I am sorry that we all bumbled about computers far too much. Now I want to support people who committed themselves to a higher goal.”

From Financial Times Deutschland, Oct. 1, 2009.

© 2009 Financial Times Deutschland

Apparently SETI Institute is not the only imaginative non-profit institution which tried to overcome the tight budget due to the recession. An article published in Nature News a few weeks ago mentioned that the Sbarro Health Research Organization created a program called “Sponsor a scientist” aimed at providing fellowship for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
That’s all for today. I need to prepare several funding proposals for NSF-AAG and I have two refereed papers to write. 🙂
Franck M.

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