No Aliens Yet, but Breakthrough Listen is Still Fascinating Philanthropy

Science takes time, and you never quite know what’s going to happen along the way. That’s a sentiment researchers echo often, and a calling card of some of the more interesting science philanthropy efforts. 

The Breakthrough Initiatives, a suite of space-related philanthropic projects backed by Yuri and Julia Milner, push that concept quite far, backing efforts that may not see desired outcomes for decades, if ever.

Take, for example, an announcement made last week at the second annual Breakthrough Discuss, a related conference dedicated to life in the universe and space exploration. The take-home message on Breakthrough Listen’s first year of hunting for signals of intelligent life in the universe is, more or less, that we didn’t find anything

Related: Sci-Fi-lanthropy: When Giving Boldly Goes Where No One Has Gone Before

But that’s kind of a snarky way to characterize the announcement, since the project, led by the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center and funded by Milner, is really just getting started. These findings come from listening to a sampling from almost 700 stars, and Breakthrough Listen is targeting 1 million stars for possible radio signals that might indicate life beyond our planet. So go easy on them, there’s a lot of stars out there. And a lot of data to sift through—the first year of observations collected eight petabytes of raw data (8 million GB). 

That doesn’t mean they found nothing, because even negatives are new information, and inform future searches. They identified 11 of the most significant events the search detected, but consider it unlikely that they come from extraterrestrial sources. The outfit also made its data and software open source for hobbyists and pros alike to take a crack at improving how we analyze the information it's collecting. But without a signal from aliens, it’s not exactly breaking news.

The lack of positive results may make for a non-story or a silly headline, but it does make for pretty compelling philanthropy. That’s because Breakthrough is continuing a large funding commitment for something that didn’t find much of note in a year, and it will do so for another year, and another year, and another.

When Milner announced the project in 2015, alongside board member Stephen Hawking, he set an initial $100 million, 10-year commitment to Breakthrough Listen. But he also said in interviews that he had no intention of stopping after that: “This thing can go on forever,” he said. That’s an important sentiment because, as this XKCD cartoon illustrates so well, this is a project that is important, but seems absurd when scrutinized at the usual human scale. Even at a time when we’re seeing major strides in our understanding of habitability beyond our solar system, this work can seem very, well, distant. 

SETI has been around in some form for decades now, and it has always limped along in terms of funding. It’s a hard sell for support from government agencies (especially lately), or industry, or even the large majority of foundations, for that matter. 

Philanthropy can be a results-obsessed field, and amid trends like strategic philanthropy and effective altruism, there’s something to learn from an initiative like Breakthrough Listen, even outside of science funding. Granted, Breakthrough is presenting rigorous data at regular intervals, and a lack of discovery still has scientific importance. But at the end of the day, it’s a long-term commitment from a funder who is totally cool with the possibility of finding nothing.

Strategy is important, but whether you’re talking about grassroots organizing, the arts, climate change, or really any work seeking systemic change, there’s something valuable in philanthropy that may not yield clear, linear results. Not in a year, maybe not in a lifetime. 

Related: Interstellar Philanthropy: That $100M for Space Exploration is Pretty Remarkable