PEOPLE striving for difficult goals seldom ask what they will do if they succeed. Happily, a group of scientists, lawyers, and government officials interested in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have done just that. They have drawn up guidelines for dealing responsibly with the electronic equivalent of ``a note in a bottle'' from outer space. This is no whimsical exercise of science fiction buffs. It's a badly needed set of principles that - if universally adopted - would guard against fraud and serious error in connection with what would undoubtedly be one of the most sensational claims of scientific discovery ever made.
That's why the international scientific community is moving quickly to consider the guidelines after their introduction at the Planetary Society's SETI conference in Toronto last October.
The International Academy of Astronautics endorsed the guidelines in April. The International Society of Space Law has subsequently added its approval. Now the International Astronautical Union is scheduled to consider the guidelines - and probably will adopt them - at its October meeting in Beijing. The document then is to go before the International Council of Scientific Unions and the International Astronomical Union during the next two years.
If these major umbrella organizations adopt the guidelines, the global scientific community will have pledged to behave itself when one or more of its members concerned with SETI thinks it has a ``signal.''
False alarms have already occurred. Often these are radar emissions and other man-made interference that subtly mimic the characteristics that SETI researchers look for. Sometimes there are tantalizing electronic will-o'-the-wisps that occur once, never to reappear.
These events provide tempting occasions for premature claims. Self-serving claimants could exploit the short-lived media attention. Wide-eyed enthusiasts could embarrass themselves and the whole SETI enterprise.
The Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence - to use the official title - will prevent this, if adhered to. It provides that no public announcement be made until a suspected signal is verified by other researchers. It would coordinate such announcements through normal scientific channels. It sets scientific standards for judging the validity of a ``signal.'' It also provides that no government or research unit keep SETI information secret.
SETI began three to four decades ago as a hobbylike activity of a few farsighted scientists. It now is a serious, albeit low-key, international research effort. Scientists in the Soviet Union and the United States historically have taken the lead.
One of the most prominent current projects is led by Paul Horowitz of Harvard University on behalf of the Planetary Society. The society now has an agreement with the Argentine Institute of Radioastronomy to run a second SETI facility in the Southern Hemisphere, under the leadership of Ra'ul Colomb.
Meanwhile, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States is developing equipment to begin a major SETI program on Columbus Day 1992 - 500 years after the Italian navigator's arrival in the New World. It's not an expensive effort. NASA's fiscal 1990 budget request includes $4.5 million for the project.
But money is not the issue here. If SETI ever succeeds, the knowledge that we are not alone in the cosmos will revolutionize humanity's concept of itself. This is why it's important that the announcement of any suspected alien signal be made with propriety.