NASA Honors Tom Pierson, Founder of SETI Institute

tom piersonThomas Pierson in his office at Landings Drive in Mountain View in 2002. Image credit Seth Shostak

Thomas Pierson, founding Chief Executive Officer of the SETI Institute, was presented the Distinguished Public Service Medal by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency on February 9, 2014 by Dr. Pete Worden, Director of NASA Ames Research Center.

Pierson was recognized "for Distinguished Service to NASA and the scientific community through leadership of the SETI Institute, supporting basic research and education dealing with life in the universe." The Distinguished Public Service Medal is the highest award made by NASA to non-agency personnel.  Previous winners have included Carl Sagan, Ed Stone, Charles H. Townes, Lyman Spitzer, Robert Heinlein, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Gene Roddenberry.

distinguished medal plaqueImage credit Seth Shostak

The following summary of Pierson’s service to NASA accompanied the award:

Thomas Pierson is the founder and CEO of the SETI Institute, a basic research organization that supports NASA research programs in astronomy, planetary science, and astrobiology. The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach.Since its foundation, the SETI Institute has cooperated closely with NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), in basic research, education, and mission operations (primarily for Kepler, where the SETI Institute has 18 staff members supporting the data processing pipeline).

The Institute currently has a staff of about 115, including almost 70 scientist investigators.About one-third of the Institute scientific staff have offices and laboratories at ARC and work closely with ARC science staff. Before founding the SETI institute, Tom Pierson was Associate Director of the Foundation at San Francisco State University, where he led the research development and administration programs of the university.

In 1984, encouraged by scientists such as Drs. Barney Oliver (Hewlett Packard Director of Research) John Billingham (Chief of the Life Science Division at ARC), and Jill Tarter (pioneering SETI scientist), Pierson proposed to develop a non-profit research organization that could serve as an institutional home for scientists and engineers interested in devoting their careers to the study of life in the universe. Pierson incorporated the SETI Institute as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit on November 20, 1984.As part of the original board, Pierson recruited Roger Heyns, President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and former Chancellor of U.C. Berkeley, and Dr. Frank Drake, then Dean of the Division on Natural Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz.Other Directors Pierson recruited throughout the years have included Nobel Laureates Dr. Baruch Blumberg, discoverer of the Hepatitis B virus and former Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Dr. Charles H. Townes, inventor of the laser and Professor Emeritus of Physics at U.C. Berkeley.

Pierson encouraged the inclusion of all research and science education projects related to “life in the universe.”Under his direction, the Institute administered over $275 million total in funded research, and on average has had 60 active Ph.D. principal investigator scientists and projects annually.The SETI Institute began working with ARC’s Exobiology group in 1985 to provide an efficient, lower cost home for the scarce research funds that supported NASA’s SETI and exobiology programs.

Subsequently, when SETI research became a private enterprise, the Institute raised funds to continue the search.Over time, the Institute grew to become a key scientific and education partner for ARC, JPL, and other centers. Many post-doctoral students from ARC joined the Institute when they first became Principal Investigators.The Institute’s Research Experience for Undergraduate Program places students with mentors at the Institute and at ARC, and assists them in finding subsequent opportunities to work with NASA.

Today, Institute scientists and educators are team members on NASA Missions including SOFIA, Kepler, MAVEN, OSIRIS-Rex, and several Mars Missions.Institute scientists lead field research campaigns to extreme environments to study Mars analog sites, often in collaboration with NASA. The Institute hosts the rings node for the NASA planetary data system and has the lead education role for the SOFIA and Kepler missions. The SETI Institute produces a weekly science show heard on more than 100 Public Radio stations, has a major presence in social media, and is a trusted source of information for the press on advancements in science and the search for life beyond the Earth.