Intel back out of sponsoring annual science fair where Indian American teens excelled

Los Angeles, May 15, 2014 – Amrit Sahu, 14, of India presents his ‘Voice-o-nator,’ an Intel® Galileo-based device that enables the speech-impaired to speak by tongue and lip movement, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest high school science research competition. Photo: Intel/Chris Ayers

Last week, the Society for Science and the Public announced that Intel has stopped sponsoring the society’s International Science and Engineering Fair, a 70-year-old high school research competition.

This isn’t a big surprise, given that a year ago Intel dropped its sponsorship of another flagship science fair run by the same nonprofit group. But still, it’s an unfortunate move.

Intel hasn’t issued a statement explaining its decision (although it has expressed a continuing commitment to science education). The New York Times suggests that the choice reflects a view that science fairs have “become tilted to life sciences and biotechnology, not primary fields for Intel,” which makes computer chips.

I’ve been involved in science fairs for years – once upon a time as a competitor and now as a volunteer judge. So I’m not an objective observer. But I can tell you that if Intel is indeed backing out because of a perceived disciplinary mismatch, that’s a shortsighted move.

First of all, it’s not clear that life sciences completely dominate the field.

All three of last year’s top winners submitted cross-disciplinary engineering research. One developed an electronic knee brace for aiding polio patients. Another built an alternative battery component that could improve safety (important in an era of exploding cell phones). The third – the only one of the three who was working in biology – concocted E. coli bacteria that can convert organic waste into electricity “at a cost that is competitive with solar.” (Reminder, because it’s easy to forget: These are high school students. The knee brace was developed by a 15-year-old.)

Moreover, research training is portable, and many students switch fields. For example, a student of mine who worked on bioinformatics in high school has spent time in Silicon Valley in college.

But most importantly, high school research competitions aren’t just about the projects.

For sure, the students who participate produce incredible work. (In addition to the examples listed above, recent competition alumni have spotted possible planets, invented inexpensive HIV tests, and made significant advances in ultra-theoretical math.)

More than anything else, however, science research competitions help students start building a network of scientific colleagues and collaborators that energizes and enhances their scientific work. For many, that network is the key to staying (and succeeding) in science, technology, engineering or math.

I’m still in close touch with many of my science fair contemporaries. And several students I’ve met while judging at research competitions have reached out to me for academic and scientific advice.

Science is becoming increasingly cross-disciplinary, and increasingly international – so the earlier students start building their networks, the better. Additionally, many science fair participants have few if any classmates engaged in research – in that case, attending research competitions can be a first opportunity to find friends with similar interests.

This makes science more productive and more fun for all involved. That’s good for the future of research, and will certainly have spillovers to industry – including tech.

So science fairs are worth sponsoring. They don’t just produce research results – they build networks that boost U.S. and global progress. That’s something everyone should be able to get behind.

(Bloomberg. Kominers is a junior fellow in economics at the Harvard University Society of Fellows)