President Obama hugs Rebecca Yeung, 11, from Seattle, next to her sister, Kimberly, 9, on April 13, during the White House Science Fair. They showed the president their homemade “spacecraft” that is made of archery arrows and wood scraps, which they launched into the stratosphere via a helium balloon that records location coordinates, temperature, velocity and pressure and reports the data back to the them. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Many science fairs, if you haven’t been paying attention, have gone corporate. They are sponsored — and named after big businesses — and in a few cases students can receive big money if they win.

At the recent 2016 White House Science Fair, for example, President Obama visited with some of the more than 100 science, technology, engineering and math students from across the country who had come with their impressive innovations.  The press release from the White House identified some of the exhibitors with headlines such as:

Girls Reach Space With Loki Lego Launcher

Florida Teen Develops Novel Solution to Pen Pal’s Power Challenge

MiniMaker Creates Toys and Games With Not-So-Pint-Sized Manufacturing Techniques

There were, to be sure, many other headlines without corporate names, but you get the idea.

What’s more, students no longer just have their parents helping. As a 2008 story in the New York Times about science fairs explains:

We’ve come a long way from one of the early national science fairs, in 1955, when 14 students participated and the winner built a scale model of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, said Lawrence Bellipanni, a retired professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on science fairs.

Professor Bellipanni found that by the early 1990s, more than 60 percent of about 400 national finalists had either been mentored by a professional scientist or prepared their projects in a university or other research lab.

Here’s a post by two members of the Yale School of Medicine faculty — and the parents of a teenager who participated in a local science fair — about how  corporate sponsors have elbowed their way in to middle and high school science fairs, and why teens need to learn that recognition in science need not be linked to a corporate name.

It was written by Anna Reisman, an associate professor  who is a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project — a nonprofit working to increase the range of voices and ideas  in the public sphere — and  Cary Gross, a medical researcher who directs the Yale branch of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, a research training program. Reisman is the director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine, and director of both the the Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop and the Standardized Patient Program, Teaching and Learning Center at the medical school.

 

By Anna Reisman and Cary Gross

Spring is science fair season, when high school and middle school students who tinker with everything from solar power to nanoparticles have a chance to share their research with a large audience. The fairs are a wonderful opportunity to inspire young thinkers as they begin their journey towards becoming our country’s future innovators, engineers, scientists, and doctors.

So why were the biggest winners at a recent middle and high school science fair the corporate sponsors?

Our teenage daughter was one of the hundred or so finalists at the awards ceremony. Along with other parents, we sat on folding chairs packed into a huge auditorium for this culminating event of several days of the fair. The prior day, our daughter told us, she and the other students stood by their posters and described their research to the judges, as well as to representatives from the various corporate sponsors. If these reps liked a certain poster, she explained, they would leave their card.

That’s what made the biggest impression on our daughter and her teammate, that “the Alexion guy left his card” – not that “the biotechnology judge thought our project was interesting!”  That is, the sponsors were granted a central position in the selection and awarding of prizes. And that’s what made us cringe. What did this have to do with her project? Why couldn’t she be in the biotechnology finalist category rather than in the Alexion Biotechnology category? What was a corporate name doing in her vocabulary at all?

The corporate-centric feel extended to many of the award categories, which were organized by corporate sponsor name. Representatives — their logos projected on a huge screen — presented their awards (the Pfizer Life Sciences Awards; the United Technologies Corporation Awards; and so on) and handed over corporate-stamped trophies, backpacks, checks, and stock. (And, in one case, a copy of a company’s annual report.)

This front-and-center name-branding within youth science fairs is problematic. It diverts attention from the students and their work. The projects represent months of hands-on research by the students, with the support of their school science programs, social robotics and engineering classes, and other curricular and extracurricular programs; they shouldn’t have to share their 15 minutes with a corporation. If anyone other than the students deserves a ray of the spotlight, it’s their science teachers and research mentors.

Further, the naming of prizes for corporations makes a potentially lasting impression on young minds. We are doctors who trained in the 1990s, back in the era when pharmaceutical reps bearing trinkets and dinner invitations roamed freely in the hospitals. And though we didn’t realize it then, even accepting the smaller, innocent-seeming items, like pens and mugs, increased the likelihood that the company’s name was being etched into our subconscious. Each of us believed that we could resist, that the gifts meant nothing, that we, not the drug companies, were the wiser.

In the past decade, it’s become clear that the professional practices of physicians and scientific researchers at any level of training are affected by gifts, whether large or small. Scientists are now required to disclose their conflicts of interest when presenting their work in journals or at scientific meetings. The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics states that academic institutions may accept funding from industry to support trainees’ participation in educational meetings, but only without attribution to the sponsors. But nowhere has the change been more dramatic than for medical trainees. Over 100 medical schools now include training about conflicts of interest in their curricula, and some have completely banned gifts from pharmaceutical reps.

How then, can we not question the subtle — or not so subtle — influence of corporate sponsorship with regard to teenagers at science fairs?

Our point is not that large corporations shouldn’t be involved in science fairs — far from it. Industry is a critical engine of innovation and progress in the world of science and medicine, and we’re grateful for efforts that support young scientists. Corporate involvement in community events like science fairs can lead to meaningful experiences for teens, whether working in a lab, finding mentors, or receiving funding to attend other science fairs. In many communities, employees of local science and technology-based firms generously volunteer as judges or have other involvement in these fairs. And industry’s sponsorship of science fairs, along with donations from smaller nonprofits, makes it possible for these fairs to run in the first place.

Yet there are lessons to be learned from academic medical institutions, which recognize the wisdom of keeping funding and gifts derived from industry sponsors at arms length from trainees. There’s no good reason for these corporate giants to have direct financial ties with students. And the volunteer judges from the corporations? If they leave their company’s calling card with the kids whose projects they like, they’re acting as company reps, not private citizens.

Corporations should stay involved in science fairs but should turn down the volume. In the world of theater, corporate sponsors are listed at the back of the program rather than being granted naming rights to the play. In the world of science, including science fairs, corporate sponsors should be applauded, but as supporting cast. Not every science fair offers top billing to corporations. It’s time for science fair planners to rethink the message they’re sending when they give front row access to corporations. Our children need to know that recognition in science is based on ideas, hard work, and collaboration, and need not be linked to a corporate name.