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The Intel Science Talent Search and the Growth of American Scientists

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The Intel Corporation and the Society for Science & the Public recently announced the winners of this year's Intel Science Talent Search -- America's most elite and demanding high school research competition, and one that has taken on even greater national importance, as U.S. preeminence in scientific innovation is challenged as never before.

In the last 10 years, the winners (10 each year) have come from 28 states plus the District of Columbia -- an impressive and encouraging geographic breadth. Twenty-one have come from New York, nine from California, seven from Maryland, six each from New Jersey and Oregon, and five each from Illinois and Wisconsin.

Intriguingly, there's less correlation than one might think between the size of a state and its production of Intel Science Talent Search winners. According to the 2011 Census, the five largest states are: (1) California, (2) Texas, (3) New York, (4) Florida and (5) Illinois. Yet New York has more than twice as many winners as California; North Dakota (48th in population) has as many winners as Texas (two each); and Oregon (27th in population) has three times as many as Florida (six vs. two).

Long Island in New York has produced 12 of the 100 winners, and three of them have come from Setauket or East Setauket alone.

While this is not enough data for a scientific conclusion, it does suggest a hypothesis: that some communities may prize and compete in the Intel Science Talent Search more than others and may, therefore, have greater success.

For communities or schools that wish to compete in this or other renowned national and international high school research competitions, a new book is now available to help energize and guide interested students. Success with Science: The Winner's Guide to High School Research is written by five current or recent Harvard undergraduates, who have all been nationally recognized at major research competitions; the foreword is by Nobel Prize winner Dudley Herschbach.

Published by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I head, Success with Science shows readers the benefits of doing research, offers practical suggestions on getting started on a research project, and contains specific "how to" advice for use in preparing for a major competition. It's designed to encourage students to pursue both research and competitions, and it's intended to help our nation grow the scientists who will be essential to maintaining our national leadership in scientific innovation.

Earlier this year, 37 million television viewers tuned in to watch the 83rd Academy Awards. The winner for Best Actress was Natalie Portman, who as a high school student (on Long Island) had been a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search. It may be a long time before our national culture prizes scientists the way it does movie stars, even though scientists are much more likely to be the reason that Americans have jobs. But it's encouraging to think that an actress as talented as Natalie Portman is a scientist at heart.

Bringing science and scientific research into American mainstream culture is one of the crucial challenges of our nation. The Intel Science Talent Search plays an important role in that regard, and Success with Science now offers aspiring scientific researchers a guide to help them on their way.

Who knows? If it had been published sooner, Natalie Portman might have won.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's second-oldest foundation, founded in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.