Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Intel and the Intel Science Talent Search

Years ago, I had a gig with Scientific American writing a weekly column for the website called "Where are they now?" This recurring feature looked at past finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, later called the Intel Science Talent Search. It was a fun gig for me. Armed with a list of names of finalists since the 1940s, I'd Google them and see who I could find. Some people were easy to find (e.g. Ray Kurzweil) -- others were more obscure. I'd write about their high school projects, and their current careers. I was so taken with some of the stories that I later went back to several people (including Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann) to interview them for the career section of 168 Hours. I attended the finalists event in Washington DC once, where Colin Powell was the guest speaker (that was kind of cool).

Anyway, from a PR perspective, it always seemed like a pretty good deal for Intel. Every one of the 40 finalists would be featured prominently in their local print and broadcast media. Many major national outlets (like the New York Times) did close-to-annual features as well. From a recruiting perspective, it probably didn't hurt to have 40 of the top young scientists have a very fond, perhaps even evangelical view of the company. All this for the price of the scholarships and administration -- a small chunk of change to a Fortune 500 company.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn that Intel has decided to stop sponsoring the contest. According to this story in the New York Times, they're continuing for the next year or so, and then will be stepping back. No particular reason was given for why it's no longer seen as the right move for the philanthropic side of the company.

It's possible some other corporation will step up (the Times article speculated about Google). I hope someone will. While there are other contests out there (for instance, the Davidson Fellowships!) it's never a bad thing to have young scientists rewarded. The existence of prizes and prestige encourages high schools to step up their scientific game, and give kids a chance to do independent research. Indeed, a number of high schools have established research programs precisely to get kids to become finalists in Intel and other programs such as the Davidson Fellows. Here's hoping this is a good thing that will continue.

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