Intel Drops Sponsorship of the Science Talent Search

The prestigious competition has been held every year since 1942

Intel Science Talent Search
President Barack Obama visits finalists of the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters/Corbis

One of the the most prestigious high school competitions, the Intel Science Talent Search, got its start in 1942. The contest recognizes the research and achievements of thousands of high school seniors who compete. Intel took over sponsorship in 1998, but after the 2017 competition, the semiconductor chip manufacturer will drop its association with the event, reports Quentin Hardy for The New York Times. The move has many upset, or simply scratching their heads.

"From a branding standpoint, this is a retrograde step for Intel," says Sanjit Sengupta, a professor of marketing at San Francisco State University, in an article by Michelle Quinn for San Jose Mercury News. "At a time when U.S. high school students need to be encouraged to undertake STEM studies, the move indicates that Intel is not interested in supporting high school education in science." 

People expect another corporate sponsor to come forward, but the change marks only the second in the contest’s more than 70-year-old history. For The New York Times, Hardy reports:

Over the years, the award for work in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — has made national headlines and been an important indicator of America’s educational competitiveness and national priorities. When it was started as an essay competition in 1942, its first topic was “How science can help win the war.” The male winner, or “Top Boy,” went on to develop an artificial kidney. The “Top Girl” became an ophthalmologist. A single winner was first named in 1949.

The contest has its roots in 1921, when journalist Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William Emerson Ritter joined together to found the Science Service, "with the goal of keeping the public informed about scientific developments," writes Pete Carey for San Jose Mercury News. Westinghouse Electric became the first sponsor for the contest. The Science Service is now known as the Society for Science & the Public, the non-profit organization that runs the contest.

Thus far, the contest has recognized the achievements of almost 3,000 young people who became finalists. The competition now costs $6 million to sponsor and awards a total of $1.5 million in prizes. Past finalists included Ray Kurzweil, author and current director of engineering at Google; Brian Greene, a physicist and science writer; and Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University. Other awardees have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, the Fields Medal, MacArthur Foundation Fellowships and more.

Quinn, in San Jose Mercury News, speculates that any large tech company could step up to fill Intel’s vacant spot: Google, Tesla or Elon Musk, Microsoft, Facebook or perhaps a less well-known name looking to make a mark. Hopefully, the excitement of the competition will continue, albeit with a different sponsor at the head of the contests’ name.

“When I was a finalist in 1961, it was the Sputnik generation, when America was competing with Russia to get into space,” says Mary Sue Coleman, a former president of the University of Michigan, in Hardy’s article for The New York Times. “It was a national obsession. People in school cheered us on like we were star athletes."

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