Intel Science Talent Search, the nation's longest-running research competition for high school seniors, is searching for new corporate backing after a surprise decision by its current sponsor to halt funding in 2017.

An official announcement of the planned changeover -- emailed in the early morning hours Wednesday to thousands of high school students and others nationwide -- stunned many on Long Island. The region is home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of contestants.

"I guess my first question was 'Why?' " said Neil Mehta, 20, a graduate of Jericho High School, who won finalist honors in the 2012 competition.

Mehta, who is about to enter his senior year at Princeton University, voiced hope that the contest -- begun in 1942 -- would continue. "The competition has sent the message that science is cool, that problem-solving is cool," said the molecular biology major. "That's a message that should never go away."

Gail Dundas, an Intel spokeswoman, confirmed the decision to drop funding but offered no explanation for why the world's largest producer of computer chips, with more than $55 billion in annual revenue, would give up sponsorship of a popular student program costing $6 million.

The Society for Science & the Public, a Washington, D.C.-based group that runs the contest, sought Wednesday to assure participants they would see no significant change over the next two years. Intel is due to continue financing through March 2017. It took over sponsorship from the former Westinghouse Corp. in 1998.

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"At first, I was shocked," said Serena McCalla, science research coordinator for the Jericho school system. She expressed confidence that Society for Science managers would find a way to preserve what she called "the Nobel Prize for high school research."

The contest names 300 semifinalists and 40 finalists in January each year, then in March presents top prizes, including three $150,000 first-place awards.

Schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties have produced at least one finalist, and occasionally as many as 11, each year for more than a quarter-century.

Michelle Quinn, a newspaper columnist who covers Silicon Valley technology for the San Jose, California, Mercury-News, speculated Wednesday that fresh sponsorship might emerge from Google, Microsoft or some other high-tech giant.

The Society for Science & the Public declined to confirm that. But the group's president, Maya Ajmera, said she had received expressions of "a lot of interest from a lot of folks."

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Intel spends another $8 million a year on the International Science and Engineering Fair, which draws about 1,800 competitors from 80 countries. That sponsorship is due to run though May 2019.

Science Talent Search is not the only contest facing change.

Another national program, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, announced in May that student contestants would no longer travel to university campuses across the country for regional judging. Rather, competing individuals and teams will present their projects to judges online.

Siemens officials said they were "excited" over the opportunity to use technology in making the contest more convenient for participants. Some outside experts were skeptical.

"It was a cost-cutting measure," said Miriam Rafailovich, director of the Garcia Center for Polymers and Engineered Interface at Stony Brook University.

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Each summer, the Garcia Center provides research training for 60 to 70 high school students, many of whom go on to win Intel and Siemens honors.