Keep backing high school ‘Nobel Prizes’ in California

San Jose high school student Andrew Jin was one of many Californian semifinalists, and one of three 
$150,000 top prizewinners at the Intel Science Talent Search.
San Jose high school student Andrew Jin was one of many Californian semifinalists, and one of three $150,000 top prizewinners at the Intel Science Talent Search.

This week, scientists announced a new species of ancient human, culled from remains in a deep South African cave. NASA released new photos of the icy-smooth plains of Pluto. Two climate change studies found that the disaster movie “Day After Tomorrow” may not be so unlikely. Apple unveiled yet another extraordinary round of high-tech upgrades.

Science has never been more immediate, more crucial or more nontrivial, as the scientific wizards say in Silicon Valley. It has also never been more prone to reactionary political attacks. So why in the world would the semiconductor giant Intel choose now, of all moments, to announce it will be ending its longtime support of the nation’s most prestigious high school science contest?

The company hasn’t explained, except to say that it will have sponsored the Intel Science Talent Search for two decades by the time its involvement ends in 2017. Fair enough, but this is not some run-of-the-mill beaker-and-poster-board derby, nor is it just another fun activity with ties to California.

The Science Talent Search has been called the Nobel Prize of high school and the Super Bowl of science contests. Its finalists have gone on to win eight real Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, five National Medals of Science and a dozen MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, among other honors.

More to the point, the prize has been part of Silicon Valley culture for more than a generation, particularly since Santa Clara-based Intel took the reins of sponsorship in 1998 from the Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse, which in 1942 launched the first competition.

More than 250 of the contest’s finalists have been Californians, and many others have gone on to become stars in the state’s scientific community here and in Silicon Valley.

The former director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Andrew Sessler, was a finalist. So was Leroy Hood, the former Caltech biologist whose work underpins modern genomics. So is UC San Diego biochemist and Nobel laureate Roger Y. Tsien. So is Marcien “Ted” Hoff, who helped design Intel’s first microprocessor.

This year’s semifinalists included two local students from Mira Loma High School and a third from Sheldon High School in Sacramento. Last year, one of three $150,000 top prizes went to a student researching the human genome in San Jose.

That’s quite a lot of science and quite a lot of youthful encouragement and inspiration from a contest that, even in this expensive era, runs on an annual budget of only about $6 million – a rounding error for a major tech corporation, pocket change for a Palo Alto billionaire.

As the nonprofit Society for Science and the Public, which runs the contest, awaits a new sponsor, we urge Intel’s West Coast brethren to step up and give back. This contest is a nontrivial tradition, and the next generation of wizards, here and across the nation, get too much out of it to allow its support to lapse.