At the American Museum of Natural History, the venerable Science Talent Search announced Thursday that it was changing sponsors for the second time in its 74-year history.
In 1942 Westinghouse became the corporate partner for the nation’s largest research competition for high school students. In 1998, Intel took over as a sponsor for the next 18 years. Now it’s handing off to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (REGN).
That’s a telling sequence — one that speaks to how science fairs have been a microcosm for how we look to science to help our country thrive, and how we’ve looked to different kinds of science along the way.
In World War II, physics and engineering were central to American’s military efforts. Big Science got its start with the Manhattan Project, which brought together scientists to build the first atomic weapon before the Nazis did. Westinghouse supplied the refined uranium for the Manhattan Project and built a vast range of technological products for the war effort, from radar systems to navy ship turbines to gyroscopic stabilizers for tank guns.
During the Cold War, sponsoring the Science Talent Search continued to be a snug fit for Westinghouse: American anxieties about falling behind the Soviet Union spurred major improvements in science education and inspired NASA’s mission to the moon. (Neil Armstrong’s first step on the lunar surface was filmed by a TV camera built by Westinghouse.)
The fall of the Soviet Union brought major changes to American industry, and Westinghouse was no exception: in 1995, it acquired CBS, and two years later it changed its name to the CBS Corporation. Meanwhile, the iconography of science was also changing. The rocket was replaced by the personal computer. And with that shift, the Science Talent Search found a fitting new patron: the premier producer of computer chips, Intel.
In 1998, when Intel took over the fair, two Stanford University graduate students got their first funding for a search engine known as Google (GOOGL). Google proved that the connections between computers could be as powerful — and profitable — as the computers themselves. And in 2014, the company launched the Google Science Fair, a serious rival to the Intel Science Talent Search.
Yet, today, there’s a telling mismatch between the sponsors of these competitions and the recent prize-winning projects. You don’t see a lot prizes for computer programming or microprocessor design. What you do see is a noticeable number of biomedical projects, from a respiratory monitor to a method to diagnose Alzheimer’s to the identification of new cancer drug targets.
Those projects reflect the ascendance of biotechnology and other medical fields as the next great American hope. Thanks to dramatic technological advances, from gene sequencing to gene editing, we’re gripped by an optimism that major new treatments are on their way for a range of diseases. And for the children of the Cold War, who are now growing increasingly old and infirm, such cures can’t come too soon.
And so it is that Regeneron Pharmaceuticals has arrived to take over the Science Talent Search, with a 10-year, $100 million commitment. Regeneron might not be a familiar name to many Americans, but that may change. The firm has a number of potentially powerful drugs in the pipeline, including one that may dramatically lower cholesterol.
At the press conference, Chief Executive Leonard Schleifer said that Regeneron jumped at the chance to sponsor the Science Talent Search. “It was an instant, unanimous decision: go do it,” said Schleifer — who entered the Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1970 with a project on geometry. (He didn’t win.)
With Regeneron’s sponsorship, the cultural significance of science fairs today remains as complicated now as when they began.
The Cold War brought us both moonshots, but also nuclear weapons capable of killing millions. The computer age has created entire economic sectors, but it is also raising fears that robots will soon replace most of us at work.
Are we now hoping that science fairs will create the next generation of biotech successes?
Biotechnology certainly has the potential to provide well-paying jobs, and, for some, enormous profits. But those profits are coming from increasingly expensive drugs. Regeneron’s own cholesterol drug costs over $14,000 a year, which some critics have warned may strain health care budgets.
After Schleifer spoke at Thursday morning’s event, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium at the museum, rose to give praise to the new partnership. “I see this sponsorship as something that can possibly take the country out of its science doldrums,” Tyson declared. “It needs just this kind of investment to kick it you know where.”
Regeneron is unquestionably bringing an investment to the Science Talent Search. And it is addressing one of the big shortcomings of the modern science fair: the way it has become an opportunity mainly for the privileged. Regeneron announced it is dedicating $30 million of its pledge to “initiatives focused on increasing outreach and equity for students across the United States,” as well as programs “designed to reach new and underprivileged communities.”
The United States will be better off in the long run if Regeneron can help more young people feel excited by science rather than shut out. But we also have to talk honestly about what sort of future those science fairs are preparing them for.