History of the SETI Institute

The SETI Institute was incorporated as a 501(c)3 California Non-Profit Corporation on November 20, 1984. The inaugural officers of the Institute were CEO Thomas Pierson and SETI scientist Jill Tarter. The Institute began operations on February 1, 1985.

Prior to the inception of the SETI Institute, NASA was funding a small project in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. John Billingham, Chief of Life Sciences at NASA Ames Research Center and Bernard (Barney) Oliver, formerly of Hewlett-Packard invited Tom Pierson and others into discussions about maximizing the effectiveness of the funds, and ways of putting more money into the research and less into institutional overhead. These discussions led to the concept of a dedicated non-profit research organization focused on research and education around the factors of the Drake Equation. This vision was realized in the 1984 incorporation of the SETI Institute.

The newly-formed SETI Institute’s first Trustees were Frank Drake, Andrew Fraknoi, Roger Heyns, and William Welch. Over the years, such well-known figures as Carl Sagan, Lew Platt, and Nobel Prize winners Baruch Blumberg and Charles Townes have served on the Board of Trustees. Jill Tarter is currently a Trustee of the Institute.

The first grant-funded proposal at the Institute was for SETI research, led by Jill Tarter. Following shortly thereafter, the first astrobiology grant (then known as exobiology) was received, with Harold Klein as the Principal Investigator. Hundreds of research and education grants have been successfully managed at the SETI Institute since those first few awards.

Founder and CEO Tom Pierson helmed the SETI Institute from its inception until ill health overtook him in 2013. He passed away in 2014. Acting CEO Edna DeVore led the Institute until she was succeeded by President and CEO David Black in 2014, who served for a year.

Current President and CEO Bill Diamond took charge in June 2015. New directions for the SETI Institute have led to a restructuring of the operations of the Institute, folding the SETI research program into the larger science umbrella of the Carl Sagan Center. Nathalie Cabrol holds the position of Director of the Carl Sagan Center. Simon Steel is the Senior Director of Education and STEM Programs, while Pamela Harman and Rebecca McDonald are Director of Education and Director of Communications, respectively. Education and Public Outreach has always been an integral part of the Institute, including space science and astrobiology curricula for formal and informal education, the popular radio show/podcast Big Picture Science, the SETI Talks lecture series, public lectures by scientists, and popular science writing. Outreach to the general public via social media and other efforts has received new emphasis as the Institute looks forward to continuing its mission to explore the possibilities of life in the universe and share discoveries with the public