British scientists from 11 institutions are coordinating their efforts in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The group is seeking $1.5 million in annual funding to rent time on radio telescopes and conduct data analysis
Currently, most SETI work is done in the U.S. and is funded largely through private donation. But U.K. Seti Research Network (UKSRN) co-ordinator Alan Penny said Britain is keen to participate.
"If we had one part in 200 -- half a percent of the money that goes into astronomy at the moment -- we could make an amazing difference. We would become comparable with the American effort," Penny told BBC News.
British facilities and researchers have occasionally been involved in projects organized and paid for by the Seti Institute in California, most notably the Jodrell bank and it's 76m Lovell radio telescope.
Jodrell has since been upgraded and linked to six other telescopes in an array known as eMerlin. Jodrell associate director Tim O'Brien said the SETI work could be done without interrupting mainstream research on the array.
"So if the telescopes were studying quasars, for example, we could piggy-back off that and analyse the data to look for a different type of signal," O'Brien said. "This approach would get you Seti research almost for free."
"There are billions of planets out there. It would be remiss of us not to at least have half an ear open to any signals that might be being sent to us," O'Brien added.
In addition to eMerlin, Britain is involved in Lofar, a European Low Frequency Array, and the Square Kilometer Array, a next-generation radio observatory to be built in South Africa and Australia.
English Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, who will act as patron to UKSRN, said that SETI research enjoys wide public interest, and a small amount of public funding may find support.
"If you were to ask all the people coming out of a science fiction movie whether they'd be happy if some small fraction of the tax revenues from that movie were hypothecated to try to determine if any of what they'd just seen was for real, I'm sure most would say 'yes'," Rees said.