On Thursday the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) announced a replacement for the sponsor for its Science Talent Search, which has been sponsored by Intel since 1998. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals reached an agreement for a 10-year, $100 million sponsorship commitment that will start with the competition cycle that begins in 2017. This is a large annual increase from Intel’s support, which was $6 million per year. Besides increasing the prize money, the sponsorship support will include outreach to young researchers that have been underrepresented in science fairs.
Regeneron is the third company to sponsor the 75 year old competition, after Westinghouse and Intel. The company is led by two alumni of the Science Talent Search, the Founder/Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, and has supported many local science fairs in the past.
The progression of sponsorship from a company that focused on mechanical and electrical products (Westinghouse) to a computer company (Intel) to a biotechnology company (Regeneron) may reflect the changing focus of top science fair projects, but I disagree with Neil deGrasse Tyson that it’s such a surprise that Intel is looking elsewhere. (It’s worth noting that Intel remains a sponsor of SSP’s international science fair competition – at least through 2019). Intel has focused more on maker fairs and competitions that are more closely linked to the kinds of products the company produces. It’s tough to argue that the company is no longer interested in supporting new scientists and engineers when it sponsored a million-dollar competition and associated television show.
I think the bigger challenge relates to the welcome news that part of Regeneron’s support will be outreach to those young people that aren’t participating in science fairs. Science writer Carl Zimmer described this problem well in recounting his experience with his daughter’s science fair project and how it really could only get done because of his contacts with scientists. In other words, if you don’t have access to professional scientists, you are at a serious disadvantage. Which significantly reduces the impact programs like science fairs can have in finding the next generations of scientists and engineers. Meaning that the increased annual investment in Science Talent Search probably doesn’t go as far as it could.