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The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute operates the Allen Telescope Array, the field of dish-like scopes some 300 miles north of San Francisco. The telescopes are a joint effort of SETI and University of California-Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Lab and have been funded largely by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who donated more than $25 million to the project.
As many readers know, SETI is not paid for with your tax dollars. At least, not if you're in the United States (where most SETI is conducted). Since 1993, when Congress killed the NASA SETI program, the search for signals from other societies has been funded by private donations. To be candid, even before that date, the amount of tax that was SETI-bound was only about three cents per year per citizen. But let's not argue whether that was a heavy burden or not: the facts are, it's currently zero. If you don't want to contribute to SETI, then it costs you nothing.
That small truth hardly silences critics, however. They look at SETI donors, and wonder aloud why these folks don't write those checks for medical research, foreign aid, or other humanitarian programs. In other words, the critics' plea is that we put all our money where our collective mouths are.
Well, such a circumstance has never been the case, and never should be.
A cursory glance at history shows that, even when people are routinely dying of hunger in the streets, some fraction of any civilized nation's resources have gone to seeking new things, or creating new things. Donors and patrons will always spend some monies on activities that, when analyzed on the crassest, basest level is "useless for society."