One evening last month at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., 40 high school seniors dressed in formal wear and nibbling hors d’oeuvres showed off their scientific research to a crowd of more than 500 people. Positioned at their posters, the students enthusiastically described their efforts to improve quadcopter flight control, study implicit bias and gender stereotypes, and track space debris, for just a few examples. Before the evening was over, one deserving senior received a $250,000 top prize, and her peers went home with hefty scholarships, too. The students had come to Washington as finalists for the 2017 Regeneron Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News. It was their big night — and a night I look forward to every year.
In many ways, attending the Science Talent Search gala is like going to the poster session at a scientific meeting. Anybody eager can dive in and find out something new. There are questions to ask about methodology, results and applications. Certain themes emerge: Cancer treatment and machine learning appeared a few times each this year. But in other ways the event is unusual. Rarely does such glamour accompany scientific sessions. Science Talent Search finalists are treated like stars, with standing ovations, a balloon drop and media attention more often reserved for athletes or rock bands. Here, there’s no doubt that the science kids are cool.
The event is inspiring because these teens offer hope that the future is bright for science. We live in challenging times. There’s much talk about public distrust of science. Climate change, evolution and vaccine safety face unfounded assaults. Issues of irreproducibility and statistical malfeasance in science are hard to escape. Federal funding for basic research and development could be waning. Yet despite all of this, deeply curious young people are still asking interesting questions about the world. They want to know how to face science’s big challenges, and they want to participate in basic discovery. I went home from the gala convinced that there will always be scientists. (And scientists who value solid science journalism. Apoorv Khandelwal, of Sammamish, Wash., who studied water desalination for his Science Talent Search project, told me he is a big fan of Science News.)
And I have good news for the Science Talent Search finalists and young scientists everywhere: There will also always be questions to ask. The stories in Science News show again and again that science is an unending search. Future scientists will no doubt still debate the details of the moon’s formation, a puzzle that is far from settled. The eons-old war between bacteria and phages will rage on, producing fresh fodder for investigation, and CRISPR gene editing will need more and more refinement.
Even problems thought to be settled are likely to return, such as questions about the dinosaur family tree and what’s to blame for the majority of cancer mutations. Scientists may not always be celebrated by everyone, but the rewards that come with pursuing knowledge and the thrill of discovery will probably endure.