Science Fairs Pump Up the Rewards of Talent

If you can't run the nation's most prestigious high school science contest, start your own--and make it even more lucrative for the winners. That's the genesis of the Siemens Westinghouse Science & Technology Competition, which announced its first winners this week in Washington, D.C. In doing so, Siemens prompted Intel, which last year took over the Science Service Talent Search, to raise its prize money as well.

Lisa Harris, of Dalton High School in New York City, won this year's top Siemens prize for individuals--a $100,000 college scholarship--for developing a new method to detect carriers of a gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. Daniar Hussain of Richland High School in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and Steven Malliaris of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, won the team competition and will divide a $90,000 scholarship for their method of generating computer programs to store data more efficiently. A total of 12 individuals and teams chosen from six regional competitions competed for the top prizes; combined with awards to students who score well on advanced placement tests and their teachers, the total Siemens pot comes to nearly $1 million.

Last year was a tumultuous one for the world of high school science competitions. Westinghouse ended 57 years of support for the annual talent search, which has been a scientific launching pad for five Nobel Prize winners and 30 members of the National Academy of Sciences. In a competition for a new sponsor, Siemens, which had just bought Westinghouse, was one of 75 companies vying for the honor. After Intel won, Siemens decided to start its own contest. "It was enlightened self-interest," says Albert Hoser, head of the Siemens Foundation, a corporate charity created in 1998. "We need employees at the cutting edge of science and math. We want to inspire students to give those subjects top priority."

Not to be outdone, Intel has doubled the prize money awarded to Science Service Talent Search winners, including a new top prize of $100,000 to be awarded in March when its 40 finalists come to Washington. And the total pool will top $1.2 million. "We like to think we're serving as a catalyst for other corporations to raise the bar," says Siemens spokesperson Esra Ozer.

Indeed, one Nobelist urges other industrial giants to follow the lead of the German telecommunications company and the U.S. chip maker. "The more the merrier," says physicist Leon Lederman, who attended the Siemens awards ceremony. "What's wrong with General Motors? Why don't they have a prize, or Ford, or any other corporation?"