Westinghouse Losing Sponsor, Meeting Suitors

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For the first time in 57 years, the administrators of the famed Westinghouse Science Talent Search are on a quest even more crucial than discovering the nation's most talented high school scientists and engineers.

The scholarship program is looking for someone to foot the bill.

With the metamorphosis last month of the Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Corp. into New York City-based CBS Corp., the annual talent search may be facing a future without its longtime corporate sponsor.

But the president of Science Service, the Washington nonprofit organization that has administered the program since its inception in 1942, emphasized that the contest is underwritten through 1999. It will continue without interruption, he said, especially now that other companies are lining up to sponsor the highly respected competition.

"Everything is in a 'go' position," Thomas Peter Bennett said last week.

The talent search has a funding commitment from the Westinghouse Foundation for this and next year that the CBS Foundation, into which it was folded, will honor.

Jack Bergen, a senior vice president for corporate relations at the CBS media conglomerate and a member of that foundation's board, said there was no chance the contest would fold. "This is an American institution, and it's a legacy of Westinghouse, and we would not let that happen," he said.

Other beneficiaries of the defunct Pittsburgh foundation's largess may have less luck. At least two high schools in that city, including one that carries the name of the former electrical-equipment manufacturer, stand to lose financial support. The foundation was the primary sponsor of science and math enrichment and scholarship programs at Westinghouse High School.

Westinghouse bought CBS in 1996, and last year the reconfigured company announced it intended to sell off its industrial and manufacturing entities by the middle of this year to concentrate on its media interests. Only last week, for example, CBS Corp. picked up the rights to broadcast the lucrative American conference games of the National Football League.

Mr. Bergen said either CBS or one of the spun-off Westinghouse units could still decide to sponsor the contest, which will give away $205,000 in college scholarships this year. He said he would like to see a resolution to the sponsorship issue by March, to coincide with the arrival in Washington of the talent search's 40 finalists and the announcement of the 10 scholarship winners.

Mr. Bennett of Science Service agreed that time frame represented "a very excellent scenario."

Educators Worry

But promises from CBS haven't kept those familiar with the contest from worrying.

Gerald Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., said he was disappointed to learn about the disruption in sponsorship and would reach out to Science Service to offer help, although it would not be financial.

At New York City's Stuyvesant High School, a perennial producer of winners in the science contest, Stanley Teitel, the assistant principal for chemistry and physics, said he was greatly concerned.

"The contest as it exists at the moment," he said, "really does inspire kids to get into the research field." He said his school even wrote to filmmaker George Lucas asking if the future-minded creator of the "Star Wars" trilogy might sponsor it.

For this year at least, the science talent search, which has become a kind of Holy Grail for an elite cadre of high school students, will still bear the name "Westinghouse." But as early as next year, Mr. Bennett said, the contest could carry the name of a new sponsor either in front of the words "Science Talent Search" or after it.

In recent weeks, officials from Science Service have been meeting with and courted by many potential corporate sponsors.

Raising the Ante

Mr. Bennett said he is using the transition in sponsors as an opportunity to think about expanding the activities of the program. It might include tracking and researching entrants and winners to learn more about the effects of the program, or starting a talent search in Europe or Asia.

For the past four or five years, the search has had a flat annual budget from Westinghouse of about $650,000. But in discussing possible sponsorship with corporate suitors, Mr. Bennett is upping the ante, citing a projected annual budget at least $1 million. But, he said, in-kind contributions could alter that figure.

In addition to a corporate benefactor, Science Service is considering seeking money from such sources as the federal National Science Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a philanthropy in Chevy Chase, Md.

Science Service officials are scrutinizing potential sponsors, Mr. Bennett said, and examining such factors as a company's financial stability, image, research activities, links to science education, and breadth of interest in science. "All of these things are very important," Mr. Bennett said.

He would not discuss whether any single company had an inside track at this point, but indicated his organization was keeping its options open.

Science Service has some experience with choosing a new corporate sponsor. Last year, the organization's science and engineering fair carried a "title sponsor" for the first time in the fair's 49-year history. The event is now known as the Intel Science and Engineering Fair after Intel Corp., the Santa Clara, Calif., computer-chip manufacturer.

Mr. Teitel at Stuyvesant High said it didn't matter who the sponsor was as long as Science Service continued to run the high-quality contest it has. If a new sponsor brought deeper pockets to the program, he said he hoped to see the purse increase for students.

The top prize of a four-year, $40,000 scholarship has remained the same for several years, he said, and "is really not keeping pace" with the tuition at the nation's top colleges.

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