NASA Inspector General Audit Of The SETI Institute

WHY WE PERFORMED THIS AUDIT: Supporting scientific and technological research to reveal the unknown about Earth, its Sun and solar system, and the universe for the benefit of humankind is an important part of NASA's mission. In 2017, NASA spent approximately $600 million on this type of research largely through grants and cooperative agreements.

Among these recipients is the SETI Institute, a private, nonprofit organization established in 1984 to advance understanding of the universe through research into technosignatures, which includes the direct search for evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations using radio and optical telescopes. However, since that time the Institute's work has expanded beyond technosignatures research to include astronomy and astrophysics, exoplanets, astrobiology, climate and geoscience, and planetary exploration.

In this follow-up to our 2016 audit that examined 60 NASA-funded institutes (defined as academic institutions, research entities, and related organizations), we examined (1) the extent to which the SETI Institute supports NASA's science goals, whether the Institute used NASA funds for their intended purpose, and whether costs paid under the agreement were in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and guidelines and (2) NASA's future involvement in technosignatures research.1 In conducting this audit, we interviewed NASA and SETI Institute personnel; reviewed relevant federal and Agency laws, regulations, policies, and procedures; and evaluated the acquisition of, compliance with, and accounting for the Institute's NASA awards.

WHAT WE FOUND

At the time of our audit, the SETI Institute was engaged in 85 NASA grants and cooperative agreements valued at about $81 million spanning the planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics disciplines, as well as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research, education, and outreach. We selected 16 NASA awards for review and found 2 were relinquished by the Institute and the remaining 14 met required reporting requirements for performance and deliverables and aligned with the goals detailed in the research announcements and NASA Science Plan. The awards also produced useful data for the Agency and scientific community, including the discovery of extrasolar planets; information on bacteria, planetary satellites, and the development of biofuels from microbes; and the enhancement of STEM participation in America's youth. NASA's procurement files for the awards showed each contained well-documented records that supported the selection and award to the SETI Institute, and a review of the Institute's financial records and expense data indicated funds and costs were accounted for effectively, handled appropriately, and complied with federal and NASA regulations and guidance.

Over the past 25 years, NASA has, according to Agency officials, provided only three grants totaling $1.6 million for research associated with the direct search for extraterrestrial intelligent life through the use of electromagnetic signals. It is not clear whether this limited funding is simply because technosignatures research has not been an Agency priority or whether it is due to confusion related to a 1-year congressional prohibition on such research in 1993. The broader scientific community has expressed interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life in the past, as did a House of Representatives NASA authorization bill voted out of Committee in April 2018.

WHAT WE RECOMMENDED

We made no recommendations in this report.

1 NASA Office of Inspector General, Review of NASA-funded Institutes (June 9, 2016, IG-16-023).

Full report

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