## Wednesday, September 09, 2015

### The (Intel) Science Talent Search - time to end corporate sponsorship?

When I was a kid, I heard about the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a national science fair competition that sparked the imaginations of many many young, would-be scientists and engineeers for decades.  I didn't participate in it, but it definitely was inspiring.  As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to work a couple of summers for Westinghouse's R&D lab, their Science Technology Center outside of Pittsburgh, learning a lot about what engineers and applied physicists actually do.  When I was in grad school, Westinghouse as a major technology corporation basically ceased to exist, and Intel out-bid rival companies for the privilege of supporting and giving their name to the STS.  Now, Intel has decided to drop its sponsorship, for reasons that are completely opaque.  "Intel's interests have changed," says the chair of the administrative board that runs the contest.

While it seems likely that some other corporate sponsor will step forward, I have to ask two questions.  First, why did Intel decide to get out of this?  Seriously, the cost to them has to be completely negligible.  Is there some compelling business reason to drop this, under the assumption that someone else will take up the mantle?  It's a free country, and of course they can do what they like with their name and sponsorship, but this just seems bizarre.  Was this viewed as a burden?  Was there a sense that they didn't get enough effective advertising or business return for their investment?  Did it really consume far more resources than they were comfortable allocating?

Second, why should a company sponsor this?  I ask this as it seems likely that the companies with the biggest capital available to act as sponsors will be corporations like Google, Microsoft, Amazon - companies that don't, as their core mission, actually do physical sciences and engineering research.  Wouldn't it be better to establish a philanthropic entity to run this competition - someone who would not have to worry about business pressures in terms of the financing?   There are a number of excellent, well-endowed foundations who seem to have missions that align well with the STS.  There's the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Dreyfus Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and I'm sure I'm leaving out some possibilities.  I hope someone out there gives serious consideration to endowing the STS, rather than going with another corporate sponsorship deal that may not stand the test of time.

Update:  From the Wired article about this, the STS cost Intel about $6M/yr. Crudely, that means that an endowment of$120M would be enough to support this activity in perpetuity, assuming 5% payout (typical university investment assumptions, routinely beaten by Harvard and others).

Update 2:  I've thought about this some more, and maybe the best solution would be for a university to sponsor this.   For example, this seems tailor-made for MIT, which styles itself as a huge hub of innovation (see the Technology Review, e.g.). Stanford could do it.  Harvard could do $6M a year and not even notice. It would be perfect as a large-scale outreach/high school education sponsorship effort. Comments? #### 8 comments: jonah said... The Yuri Milners of the world should take up this mantle. It has an impact on science that extravagant prizes for established physicists can't match. Anzel said... Hey, Rice is rich too. Would be a better investment in funds than some of the silly art projects being set up around campus. Douglas Natelson said... Anzel, while$6M/yr is probably along the lines of certain annual expenditures around Rice, I can pretty much guarantee, 100%, that there is no way Rice would be willing to commit $6M/yr to something like this without some major donor action. Anzel said... Oh, I know they'd need to have to enlist some donors for such a thing ($120M is the sort of capital required for building two new buildings) and I realize budgets are generally spoken for, but at the same time Rice has a similar endowment/student (or faculty) ratio as MIT.

Seriously, it's in the realm of feasibility. Work with UH and BCM* if necessary. Meanwhile we spend how many millions each year on our Div I teams**? What would actually get Rice's name out there more?

*I realize these that saying "oh just work more with BCM, it'll all work out" leads to silliness like the merger attempt. But with some real thought negotiations ahead of time...
**I also read the McKinsey report and heard about all the angry alumni, but still...

Anzel said...

Though in the end, what I'd imagine would probably be more likely would be several universities teaming together to provide the endowment, and then the fair being held at the various institutions on a rotating basis. This would be more interesting for the students as well, as people would then get to see different places each year they go.

Braith said...

But check out the past winners of that science contest tho. Isn't it mostly rich kids that work in university labs, taking credit for results from ongoing projects to which they've made negligible contributions? Don't rich kids have enough opportunities to boost their resumes for college applications without these silly "talent searches" ?

Douglas Natelson said...

Braith, there is always a concern in science fair contests that the participants may be getting too much help. Likewise, people from wealthy backgrounds have access to greater resources, as do people who have an "in" at a nearby university. I never did the STS, so I don't know first-hand, but I have the impression that there is a great deal of effort on the part of the organizers to try to mitigate these issues. Real back-and-forth questioning of the student can certainly reveal whether they know their stuff. Seems that the issues of access to resources and opportunity, and the inherent bias in favor of the wealthy, would be much more difficult to offset.

Perhaps readers with first-hand experience in this or related contests could comment.

Braith said...

Yeah, it would be nice to see some comments on the issue by those with some direct experience, either as mentors or former STS participants. Back in the day, I remember a healthy number of these high school "rich kids" mulling about campus during the summers at Rice, exploiting their socioeconomic status to boost their college resumes. I also remember them as being largely unimpressive in terms of academic/scientific abilities, despite their obvious sense of entitlement. I don't understand why more professors that claim to be interested in community outreach don't recruit high school students with less socioeconomic privilege to work in their labs during summers. It seems that this would have a much stronger social impact than either helping out already privileged kids or the more pervasive superficial outreach, where scientists perform some attention-grabbing parlor tricks for disinterested child audiences.