SETI continues to look for signals of extraterrestrial civilizations. What happens if a signal is actually detected? For the answer, we can look to the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, created by the SETI Permanent Study Group of the IAA (International Academy of Astronautics). The Taskgroup’s job is to look at what would happen if we do get a confirmed detection. Understand that we’re talking about a group that is purely advisory in nature, but one whose insights may help scientists. It’s an impressive group whose members are listed here.
Step one is obvious. The reception of a signal would be met with the Taskgroup urging its discoverer to evaluate its authenticity beyond any shadow of a doubt. If it is genuine, the Taskgroup then advises that details be disclosed to the astronomical community first, beginning with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which would then pass the news along to the United Nations and other govermental bodies. The discoverer would then be free to call a press conference to announce the finding, and soon the airways and computer networks would be filled with discussion.
Paul Davies runs through all this in his book The Eerie Silence (Davies is currently Chair of the Taskgroup, so he’s an unusually good source). And he notes that this calm procedure would likely be a good deal messier in practice:
The discoverer may be deliberately uncooperative or overawed and disoriented by the magnitude of events. There may be more than one person and one country involved. The news might leak out ahead of the formal diplomatic steps… Also, there is nothing to stop an astronomer who detects a signal out of the blue from going straight to the press or to her or his government, or any other organization, bypassing our Taskgroup altogether.
Handling Our Response
Davies goes on to say that despite all this, the most likely scenario is one involving a detection that occurs within the SETI community, and in that case the Taskgroup protocol is likely to be followed. You can read more in the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, written in 1989, which runs through the above steps.
I highly recommend the book After Contact by Al Harrison, a psychology professor involved with SETI.