The NSF 2026 Idea Machine is an opportunity for researchers, the public, and other interested stakeholders to contribute to NSF's mission to support basic research and enable new discoveries that drive the U.S. economy, enhance national security, and advance knowledge to sustain the country's global leadership in science and engineering.
NSF has released a toolkit that includes material for distribution: a postcard, outreach slides (PDF version; PowerPoint version with notes), sample social media posts and email blasts, and posters for public, industry, and academic audiences. A competition handbook is coming soon!
Idea Machine ideas are due to NSF by October 26, 2018. Launch your imaginations now!
What is the Idea Machine?
- A mechanism to set the stage for breakthrough science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and education through the nation's 250th anniversary in 2026 and beyond; and
- An opportunity to contribute to NSF's mission to support basic research that drives the nation's economy, enhances its security, and advances knowledge to sustain U.S. global leadership in science and engineering.
What is a Big Idea for the Idea Machine?
- A Big Idea is a compelling research challenge in fundamental science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) research or education that is large in scope, innovative in character, and requires a long-term commitment (i.e., 10 years or more) to address.
- It has a worthwhile objective(s), is ambitious and challenging and may require a paradigm shift in our thinking.
- It requires high risk/high reward, transformative exploration at the frontiers of science, engineering, and STEM learning.
- It will attract creative contributions from many researchers.
- It crosses traditional scientific boundaries in innovative ways, fills recognized gaps or takes advantage of new opportunities, and does not fit within the current programs of any particular NSF directorate or division.
- Progress toward addressing it would have significant societal and scientific impact that would benefit many stakeholders, both inside and outside of the research community.
- Some of the other Big Ideas that NSF is currently pursuing are Harnessing the Data Revolution,Understanding the Rules of Life: Predicting Phenotype,The Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier, Navigating the New Arctic,Windows on the Universe: The Era of Multi-Messenger Astrophysics, and The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution.
The initial screening of all entries will use the following criteria:
- Does the idea fit within the purview of the NSF, as described in the NSF Proposal and Awards Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG)*?
- Is the idea scientifically credible?
- Is the idea sufficiently ambitious in scope to be deemed a Big Idea?
- Is it a research theme, and not an individual project?
- Does it cross traditional scientific boundaries in innovative ways?
Entries that meet the initial screening criteria will then be judged using following criteria:
- Societal and scientific impacts of addressing the challenge/question;
- Excitement generated by the challenge/question;
- Ambition of the challenge/question;
- Originality of the challenge/question;
- Potential for inter-agency, international, and public private partnerships to address the challenge/question;
- Timeliness of the challenge/question;
- Whether the challenge/question is beyond the scope of existing NSF programs; and
- Quality of the presentation of the entry (initial narrative; video pitch; remote interviews).
The final selection of winning entries will be at the discretion of NSF and will include consideration of additional factors such as the Foundation's current and planned investments, the unique suitability of NSF to lead research activities on the proposed Big Idea, risk /reward balance of investing in the idea, readiness of the relevant research communities to take on the idea, and the scope and scale of the idea.
* From the PAPPG: NSF funds research and education in most fields of science and engineering. NSF does not normally support technical assistance, pilot plant efforts, research requiring security classification, the development of products for commercial marketing, or market research for a particular project or invention. Research with disease-related goals, including work on the etiology, diagnosis or treatment of physical or mental disease, abnormality, or malfunction in human beings or animals, is normally not supported. Animal models of such conditions or the development or testing of drugs or other procedures for their treatment also are not eligible for support. However, research in bioengineering, with diagnosis- or treatment-related goals, that applies engineering principles to problems in biology and medicine while advancing engineering knowledge is eligible for support. Bioengineering research to aid persons with disabilities also is eligible. NSF does not have any programs involving the construction of public works in metropolitan areas, no development assistance programs, no programs requiring State plans as a condition of assistance, none involving coordination of planning in multi-jurisdictional areas and no programs of grants to State and local governments as defined in Section 6501(4) of Title 31 of the United States Code (USC).