In his State of the Union Address last January, President Obama said, "We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair." This month, I had the honor of meeting our young science superstars at the Awards Gala of the Intel Science Talent Search -- the culmination of a national competition that identifies and celebrates the nation's best and brightest young minds from high schools throughout the country. If events like these, which showcase the incredible talent of our nation's youth, received a mere fraction of the public attention that some other aspects of our media culture receive, our national interest would be very well served.
Started in 1942, the Science Talent Search is America's oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition, which encourages students to tackle challenging scientific and technical questions and develop the skills to solve the problems of tomorrow. Finalists and winners from past years have gone on to earn seven Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, two Fields Medals in mathematics, eleven MacArthur Foundation "genius” grants and now with Natalie Portman's recent achievement, an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role.
Forty finalists were selected from over 1,700 applicants to attend this year's Gala. Their research projects ranged from treating autoimmune diseases with ultraviolet light to finding more efficient ways to harness solar energy. I spoke to Emily Li Chen, of Omaha, Nebraska, and Shubhangi Arora, of Novi, Michigan, at length about ways to develop new drug therapies for infectious diseases as well as neurodegenerative ailments such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
It was clear to me that these young minds represent -- in a spectacular way -- America's future potential in terms of our long-term economic performance and global competitiveness. Support of science and technology capacity is generally correlated with improved GDP-growth. My old friend from Boston, the economist Robert Solow was awarded the Nobel Prize for showing that technological progress was responsible for over 80 percent of economic growth in the United States between 1909 and 1949. More than ever before, modern economies are built with ideas based on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is estimated that America's knowledge-based industries represent 40 percent of the country's economic growth and approximately 60 percent of our total exports. The United State cannot afford to fail in this area if we are to retain our technological and economic leadership.
Sustaining a vibrant knowledge-based economy is vital not only for the United States but also for developing countries as they grow and compete on the international stage. Here at the U.S. Department of State, our recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) highlights that "science, engineering, technology and innovation are the engines of modern society and a dominant force in globalization and international economic development."
A key component of this is the empowerment of women and girls. Hence, I was delighted to see that sixteen of the forty finalists selected this year were young female investigators. Michelle Hackman, of Great Neck, N.Y., won second place honors and $75,000 from the Intel Foundation for her study on the effect of separating teenagers from their cell phones. And last year, Erika DeBenedictis, a young woman from Albuquerque, N.M., won the top award of $100,000 for her project developing a software navigation system to help improve spacecraft travel through the solar system. The contributions of these young women are inspiring. It sends a clear signal throughout the United States and to other countries that the active participation of both men and women in science and technology is not only the right thing to do but also essential for nations to realize their full potential for innovation and economic growth.
Ultimately, science and technology are critical driving factors to America's competitiveness as a nation and to the ability of people around the world to participate productively in the global economy. The Intel Science Talent Search demonstrates that with support and encouragement, today's youth are essential in gaining a better understanding of the world around us and developing solutions to challenges of the 21st century, such as combating climate change, enhancing agricultural productivity, and developing important medical breakthroughs. All Americans should celebrate these young men and women and encourage other youth to follow their lead.