Email Print Share
NSF 2026 Banner
lightbulb illustration with people sitting around it

What is the NSF 2026 Idea Machine?

 A mechanism to set the stage for breakthrough research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and STEM education through the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026 and beyond;

 A competition to inform the U.S. agenda for fundamental science, engineering, and STEM education research by proposing new “Big Ideas” for future investment by the National Science Foundation (NSF); 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"?

 A Big Idea is a compelling research challenge in fundamental STEM or STEM 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 research in science, engineering, and STEM learning.

 It will attract creative contributions from many researchers.

 It crosses traditional scientific boundaries, fills recognized gaps, or takes advantage of new opportunities, and it 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 the research community.

 Some of the other research 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.

How does the NSF 2026 Idea Machine work?

The NSF 2026 Idea Machine has four stages:


Big Idea Development and Submission


Video Pitches and Public Comment


Blue-Ribbon Panel Virtual Interviews


Selection of Winners and Awarding of Prizes

Stage 1: Big Idea Development and Submission

  • Deadline: Submit your entry at the NSF 2026 Idea Machine website by October 26, 2018. Your Big Idea may be on any topic that fits within the fundamental STEM research and education research mission of NSF.
  • Individuals or teams of up to five may enter. One member of each team must be designated as the team leader. Teachers may enter on behalf of their high-school classes.
  • Your Big Idea may be on any topic that fits within the fundamental STEM research and education research mission of NSF. See “What is a Big Idea?” for additional information.
  • NSF encourages submission of ideas that are amenable to inter-agency, international, or public-private partnerships.
  • Science, engineering, and STEM education experts will judge the entries and select up to approximately 30 Big Ideas to move on to Stage 2, Video Pitches and Public Comment.

Stage 2: Video Pitches and Public Comment

  • Contestants whose entries are selected for Stage 2 will be invited to elaborate on their Big Ideas through the submission of brief visual presentations. NSF may suggest that authors of essentially identical ideas work together on the video pitches and subsequent competition stages.
  • Video pitches may be live-action, animations, narrated slide shows, or other formats, up to five minutes in length.
  • In the video pitches you should:
    • elaborate on your compelling research challenge (Big Idea);
    • explain why the challenge is important and what success in addressing it would look like; and
    • suggest illustrative research questions and approaches to address the challenge.
  • Your video pitch should convey wonder and excitement and aim to inspire the viewer.
  • Additional instructions on preparing the video pitches will be distributed when Stage 2 entries have been identified.
  • The video pitches and their original narrative entries will be posted on the NSF 2026 Idea Machine website. The public will be asked to comment on the importance and potential impact of the ideas and encouraged to offer suggestions for improving the ideas.

Stage 3: Blue-Ribbon Panel Virtual Interviews

  • A Blue-Ribbon Panel of external science, engineering, and STEM education experts will judge the Stage 2 entries, review relevant public comments, and select up to 12 Big Ideas to invite for virtual interviews (to be conducted by videoconference).
  • During the interviews, entrants will be asked questions by the Panel, providing an opportunity for entrants to explain in additional detail why their proposed Big Ideas are important, what success in addressing the challenge will look like, who will benefit from that success, and why this is the right time for NSF to invest in this Big Idea.
  • The Blue-Ribbon Panel may pose additional questions based on their review of the materials.
  • After the interviews, the Panel will recommend up to approximately six Big Ideas for final consideration by NSF.

Stage 4: Selection of Winners and Awarding of Prizes

  • NSF leadership will select up to approximately four winning Big Ideas.
  • Winners will be announced publicly and prizes will be awarded.


The NSF 2026 Idea Machine
National Science Foundation
2415 Eisenhower Avenue
Alexandria, Virginia 22314 USA