Forget UFOs. URI dean has a close encounter with UAP

Graduate School of Oceanography Dean Paula Bontempi served on NASA panel that reshaped the way we think about outer space

By: - October 2, 2023 5:01 am

University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography Dean Paula Bontempi, a biological oceanographer, served on the independent study team that evaluated the reporting of unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, the term the U.S. government now uses to refer to what was once commonly referred to as UFOs. (Alex DeCiccio/University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography)

On Sept. 14, 2023, NASA released the findings of a team of experts charged with evaluating the reporting of unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, the government’s term for objects formerly referred to as UFOs. Created in 2022, the 16-member Independent Study Team included scientists from across the United States. Paula Bontempi, a biological oceanographer and dean of the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, was one of them. Before she became dean of GSO in August 2020, Bontempi previously served as acting deputy director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington, D.C. And even though she had a long tenure at America’s space agency, Bontempi said she never gave much thought to objects not immediately identifiable as human-made or naturally occurring phenomena. Until now. Panel members were not authorized to speak publicly about their findings until the report was released. This interview, with Cynthia Drummond, is the first  Bontempi has done since the report was made public.

I am assuming that you were invited to be one of the 16 members because of your NASA tenure.

I never got any specifics as to why who was invited was invited. That was never made clear. NASA must have had some rationale related to it, but I was the only earth scientist, and I would assume – and this is just speculation on my part – that it had something to do with the fact that that I spent 18 years of my career at NASA headquarters and I knew the earth science and some of the other portfolios well.

Did you have regular meetings, virtually? One or two in person? How did it actually happen?

There were some sort of subgroups, discussion-type fact finding meetings over the course of the year. Then there were actual physical committee meetings where we would discuss things. I believe that the Independent Study Team was under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. I’m not totally certain, but I’m pretty sure that it was. We had to publicize all the physical meetings, which we did, and then we had a public meeting that was announced and open to the public in May of last year when we were going through our deliberations. …Then, over the course of the summer, we sort of tidied everything up into our recommendations in the short report.

The primary focus of the panel at the beginning was to look at reports of aerial phenomena and the risks they might pose to air traffic, but how did that broaden as the panel’s work went on?

Over the course of the UAP panel time, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena was reclassified as Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena. Because that was changed mid-stream, the Independent Study Team focused on the aerial piece, but it became clear that there were some reports, historically, that were below the ocean surface.

One of the charges of this panel was to de-stigmatize reporting of UAP, but on the other hand, very early in the report, it states categorically that that there is no evidence that UAP are extra- terrestrial, which would seem to me to tacitly discourage citizens from making reports.

I can’t tell you how many interviews I did where people were like, “Just say it. There are extra – terrestrials.” And I was like, “Look, I am a scientist. We are all scientists and engineers on this panel and we are data people and we haven’t been presented with any evidence that tells us there are extraterrestrials. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” That being said, the de-stigmatization of reporting – that’s actually really important. … Allowing those conversations to be more mainstream, I think, is really important. You know, normalizing, to some extent, that we can witness things that are unknown and try to figure out what data do we need to explain them, or look at them, or was it really anomalous.

We haven’t been presented with any evidence that tells us there are extraterrestrials. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The report acknowledges the value of public reporting of phenomena and suggests that it might be worthwhile to encourage the crowdsourcing of public reports. One of the ways to do this would be the creation of a smartphone app that would make it easy for people to record and submit their reports. Do you think an app would be worthwhile?

I’m not sure what NASA and maybe some of the other agencies have planned and what the next steps may be. An app certainly sounds like something a lot of people could use who have smartphones, but I think even just a phone number. I think the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] for example, has, if you witness something anomalous, call this number and report it. Not everybody has a smartphone or a mobile phone, and that’s an important recognition. I think the other thing is just de-stigmatizing that it’s OK to report. There aren’t going to be negative repercussions for you reporting.

Did your perceptions in general change in any way after this year of being on the panel?

I spent almost my whole career working for NASA, and it’s a science-driven agency that’s committed to exploring and understanding air and space, including the unknown, right? And whether that’s the farthest reaches of the universe, or here on Earth, I completely believe in that mission and every aspect of it. And NASA is an agency that has over 60 years of experience in measuring phenomena in air and space, as well as other Earth phenomena from space, whether that’s aquatic, terrestrial, whatever. All of that is really important to me. One of the things I had never really spent any time thinking about was, are we alone in the universe, which is also part of NASA’s mission. I really never spent a lot of time thinking about it, and over the course of this last year, I did start thinking about it, even though the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence wasn’t part of our charter.

The report’s out, so what’s next?

I watched the release of it … like everybody else, and it sounds like NASA has nominated a liaison to the Anomaly Resolution Office, which is sort of the classified wing of the UAP, and they will probably do some sort of collaboration moving forward. As far as what might be planned with an app, where people can report, or something like that, I think we all just have to stay tuned. But, what’s really nice is that the dialogue is now more open and mainstream.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Cynthia Drummond
Cynthia Drummond

Cynthia Drummond began her journalism career as a television reporter in Canada. She holds a Master of Marine Affairs degree from the University of Rhode Island and worked for several years at The Westerly Sun, covering Hopkinton, Richmond, Charlestown and the Chariho Regional School District. In addition to writing for the Rhode Island Current, Cynthia covers the Town of Richmond for the Beaver River Valley Community Association.