When Craig Barrett headed , the multinational technology company founded by Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, no one was surprised that the lion's share of its philanthropic investments focused on support for science education. And perhaps no initiative within that broad portfolio was as popular as the , the prestigious national pre-college science competition known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for the first fifty-seven years of its existence that Intel started sponsoring in 1998. Last year, however, the company announced it would be discontinuing its sponsorship of the competition and followed that, more recently, with an announcement that it would be discontinuing its sponsorship of the , like the Science Talent Search a program of the nonprofit , which Barrett has served as a board member since 2010.
Recently, PND spoke with Barrett about the company's decision to discontinue its support for the competitions, the transformation of science and engineering education more broadly, and the continued value, for students and society, of basic science.
Philanthropy News Digest: Intel was the lead sponsor of the Science Talent Search until last year. Were you surprised by the company's decision to discontinue its sponsorship of the contest and of the International Science and Engineering Fair, which it will no longer sponsor after this year?
Craig Barrett: Not terribly surprised; the warning signs were there. It should be said that Intel hasn’t pulled back from its overall funding for STEM projects and initiatives. As far back as I can remember, education and STEM education have been the number-one priority of the company's philanthropic support. But current leadership is probably not as science-oriented as prior leadership, so they’ve chosen to fund some projects that are a bit more engineering-oriented.
PND: When you were the CEO of Intel, did you have a difficult time explaining or justifying to your board and shareholders the cost of these types of sponsorships?
CB: I don't know of a CEO at Intel who has ever had a difficult time explaining or justifying philanthropic support for education, especially math and science education. Over the last couple of decades, the company has devoted roughly $100 million a year to philanthropic support for education. And not once have shareholders or the board raised concerns about those expenditures. Everyone seemed to accept that science, technology, engineering, and math were important to the company, and whatever the company did to feed and improve the pipeline for students interested in those topics, to support research and programs associated with those topics, was accepted as what Intel was all about.
PND: For you personally, what was the best part of being associated with the competitions?
CB: Meeting with the kids and attending the finals of the Science Talent Search, talking to the forty top finalists, looking in amazement at the complexity of the projects they were working on. In the International Science and Engineering Fair, we probably have fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred kids from seventy-five different countries. Just seeing the enthusiasm, the body language of kids involved in science, engineering, exploratory work, it was energizing. It made you feel good about what you were doing and made you feel good about the next generation.
PND: Some skeptics argue that science and technology are creating more problems than they're solving. As a society, have we put ourselves in jeopardy by making ourselves dependent on increasingly complex systems that not many people really understand?
CB: I grew up using a K&E [Keuffel & Esser] slide rule, both linear and circular. And even though I managed it a couple of times, I have to admit I never enjoyed figuring out square roots by hand. That's almost a lost art. But you’re really asking a question about whether science is good, bad, or indifferent. So let me tell you a story.
I was giving a talk once at the Communist Party School in Beijing. This is where Communist Party functionaries went to learn the fine art of being a government official in a communist country. Over the years, I gave a couple of talks there, and in one of those talks I discussed the future course of technology, after which I opened it up to questions. And the first question I got was, "What does it feel like to work for a company whose main purpose is to make smart weapons to kill people?" The question was asked in Mandarin, and the English translation lagged a little behind, so I was watching the audience as the question was being translated, and all these people were looking at the questioner and kind of smirking. Finally, the translator finished, and I responded by saying that all science, all technology, can be put to both good and bad use — it really depends on how you decide to use it, that technology itself is not inherently bad. For example, I said, the Chinese invented gunpowder, and think of all the positive uses to which it has been put, and then consider all of the negative uses to which it's been put. The invention of gunpowder itself was neutral; if we associate gunpowder with bad things or outcomes, it's only because of how humans and their governments choose to use it.
The same is true for technology. Yes, proficiency in technology today probably requires a greater level of understanding of STEM subjects than the general populace has or is ever likely to have. But I don't see anything negative or fundamentally bad about technology itself. It all depends on how we choose to use it.
PND: Are we seeing a shift away from basic research in the traditional sciences toward an embrace of software as the be-all and end-all?
CB: Clearly, software and social media are important. And you're seeing K-12 schools now include coding in their standard curricula. That's consistent with general technological trends. But it doesn't, in any way, diminish the importance of basic science. You can write all the code you want, but if you don't have the network, if you don’t have the microprocessors, if you don’t have the memory devices, if you don’t have the interface, the code won’t do you any good. Code isn't going to make next-generation photovoltaics any more efficient. It's not going to keep going. It's not going to enable fifth-generation wireless networks. All that still depends on science and hardware and the seamless integration of various technologies. Yes, code is a part of the picture, it's a big part of the picture, and yes, it's becoming more important. But it doesn't diminish the importance of scientific research and breakthroughs driven by that research.
That said, the global workforce increasingly will be involved in coding, so focusing on it is good. And, besides, kids think it's cool. Besides hack-a-thons and teaching coding in the classroom, you see things like robotics competitions and other projects that all have an element of coding in them. I'm all for that. But I don’t think it diminishes the need for research, for deep understanding of and advances in the basic sciences.
Science fairs aren't the only way to get kids interested and involved in hands-on science. Any kind of competitive environment you can put kids in, where they're forced to focus their energies on math, or science, or engineering, is wonderful. And I believe the private sector should continue to be the sector that funds these things, because it can do it more efficiently and effectively than government can. When I was at Intel, we had computer clubhouses around the world, we had science fairs around the world. And those programs have had an enormously positive impact — especially over the last ten to fifteen years, when there's been so much more public awareness of and focus on the value of a STEM-infused education. Going forward, I believe these types of programs will become more effective and more common, and I’m very optimistic about what that will mean for science and for society. In my mind, they're not a thing of the past; they're the future. And countries that invest in them will reap the benefits.
— Matt Sinclair