The nation’s oldest and most prestigious high school science competition, the Science Talent Search, has a new sponsor: Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a fast-growing biotechnology firm founded by two scientists who began their careers competing in the event years ago.
Regeneron, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., has committed to providing $100 million during the next decade, a level of support that will nearly double the amount of scholarship money awarded to student winners.
“We are over the moon,” said Maya Ajmera, chief executive of the Society for Science and the Public, the nonprofit organization that runs the competition.
Of the $100 million, $30 million will go toward boosting programs to mentor students from underserved communities and to train teachers in project-based learning. That amounts to a tripling of the society’s budget for outreach and equity efforts.
“If our country is to stay globally competitive, we have to make an enormous commitment to our young people in this country from all walks of life — to be excited about science and to know that they have an opportunity to one day become a scientist,” Ajmera said.
Each high school student who competes in the Science Talent Search is required to complete an original research project. Thousands enter each year, and 40 are chosen to spend a week in Washington, where they explain their projects to some of the nation’s top scientists.
Alumni of the competition have gone on to win Nobel prizes, Fields medals and MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards, among many distinctions.
Regeneron’s commitment means that awards for the competition’s 300 semifinalists and their schools will double from $1,000 to $2,000. The top prizes go from $150,000 to $250,000.
One of this year’s top winners was Maya Varma, a California teen who invented an inexpensive device to diagnose chronic lung disease. The 17-year-old built her device out of $35 worth of basic electronics, but it is as accurate as hospital-grade versions of the equipment that cost far more. Its low cost could help to save lives in developing countries where affordability is key.
The Science Talent Search has had just two prior sponsors during its 75-year history: Westinghouse Electric, from 1942 to 1997, and Intel, starting in 1998.
When Intel announced last year that it would no longer sponsor the annual competition, dozens of companies and philanthropists expressed interest in stepping in to support — and associate themselves — with the long-running event.
Regeneron, which produces drugs to treat a variety of conditions including eye diseases and high cholesterol, was one of four finalists.
Regeneron chief executive Leonard Schleifer, a neurologist, said he wanted to support a competition that helps get young people excited about the possibilities of science.
“What was the great competition going on when I was growing up? We were racing to get a man on the moon, and we wanted to be first, and that was a great competition which keenly focused the nation,” he said. “Competitions are part of our fabric. I can’t think of a better way to get young people interested in a career in science.”
Schleifer added that he wanted to help provide mentors for young people because mentors played a key role in guiding him throughout his career, starting with a geometry teacher at Forest Hills High School in Queens who urged him to enter the Science Talent Search.
He said that with Regeneron he wanted to create a company driven by scientists instead of by commercial enterprise, one that could succeed in a business sense while also improving people’s lives and health.
He said he hopes the company’s success shows young people that “you can do well in the world by doing good, and doing good through science.”
Regeneron’s drugs include Eylea, which is used to treat vision problems stemming from various eye diseases, and Praluent, an injectable drug used to reduce cholesterol levels. The company also is investing heavily in research on using the body’s immune system to attack cancers.