NSF Launches Competition to Identify New ‘Big Ideas’

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Publication date: 
5 September 2018

Through a public prize competition, the National Science Foundation is soliciting proposals for “fresh ideas” to help shape its future investments.

Last week, the National Science Foundation announced the launch of the NSF 2026 Idea Machine, a public prize competition to identify new “Big Ideas” that will inform the agency’s research activities and investments over the next decade and beyond. NSF says the new ideas will build on the original 10 Big Ideas selected in 2016 to guide the agency’s future direction.

Through Oct. 26, NSF will accept proposals from eligible individuals and small groups for ideas that “address compelling challenges” in STEM research fields. Entries will then face several rounds in which expert reviewers will judge them against a pre-established set of criteria. The first round will be led by NSF staff and a second by a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts from foundations, nonprofits, startup companies, and other stakeholders. NSF will then announce “approximately four” winning ideas in the summer of 2019.

The winners will receive $26,000 cash awards, but NSF says that the real reward is that winning entries could help shape its programs and research agendas. The agency will also showcase up to 100 of the top submissions on the competition website.


NSF 2026 Idea Machine Challenge Timeline

The timeline for the NSF 2026 Idea Machine. NSF plans to announce approximately four winning ideas next summer. Click to enlarge.

(Image credit - NSF)

NSF seeks same ‘caliber’ of ideas as original 10

For the purpose of the competition, NSF defines a Big Idea as a compelling research challenge that is “large in scope, innovative in character, and requires a long-term commitment.” A Big Idea must also “attract creative contributions from many researchers,” “cross traditional scientific boundaries,” and lead to “significant societal and scientific impact that would benefit many stakeholders.” NSF explains that proposals should also fit within the agency’s mission to support fundamental research and education in the STEM fields.

The initial set of 10 Big Ideas, first announced by NSF Director France Córdova in 2016, emerged from an internal process in which agency officials exchanged a series of white papers and fleshed out ideas at a staff retreat. Those selected include six “research” ideas, among them “The Quantum Leap: Leading the Next Quantum Revolution” and “Windows on the Universe: The Era of Multi-Messenger Astronomy,” and four “process” ideas, including mid-scale research infrastructure, convergence research, and broadening participation in STEM. With an eye to developing future Big Ideas, NSF 2026 was also included as one of the four process ideas.

Earlier this year, NSF incorporated the 10 Big Ideas into its fiscal year 2019 budget request, including $343 million in dedicated funding to be split among the agency’s research directorates and other offices. $6.5 million of that amount would go to the NSF 2026 Fund to administer the competition.

NSF encouraging broad participation

Suzi Iacono, head of NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities, and Deb Olster, chair of the NSF 2026 Working Group, are leading the NSF 2026 Fund and competition. FYI spoke with them earlier this summer.

Iacono said the competition was originally proposed as “NSF 2050” to celebrate NSF’s upcoming centennial, but NSF leadership preferred to call it “NSF 2026” in honor of the 250th anniversary of the U.S. and the "valuable contributions NSF has made to the nation."

Calling the competition a form of “crowdsourcing,” Olster says it provides NSF an opportunity to reach the public and the agency’s non-traditional audiences. Iacono explained that NSF wants to “engage all of our stakeholders and really reach out very broadly, to high school science classes but also to professional societies.” The agency also “certainly welcome[s] and expects” entries from its more traditional academic partners, says Olster.

Iacono says that anyone who has a Big Idea and wants to share it with NSF should submit it, emphasizing that,

 NSF is open for business in Big Ideas.

Asked to give an example of a Big Idea that could come out of the competition, Olster emphasized that NSF does not have any pre-selected areas in mind, pointing instead to the 10 Big Ideas that NSF is already pursuing as the “caliber of thing we are looking for.”  

Iacono and Olster said it is not clear yet whether the ideas that emerge from the competition will be treated on par with the original 10. Depending on the ideas that are put forward, Iacono said they could become new programs or integrated into existing programs. It is also unclear whether winning ideas will lead to new funding requests or research funding opportunities. Iacono explained that any budget allocations would be the result of “a long process.” She elaborated,

We’re advertising it as ‘This is where Big Ideas 2.0 could come from,’ but there might be some small ideas, or there might be some medium ideas. We imagine that these could be seen and might be picked up in our center-scale research programs, or in our research traineeship programs. … Depending on what kinds of areas are important for investment at that point in time, they could pick up these themes.

Addressing why NSF needs new Big Ideas beyond the original set, Iacono said it is part of the agency’s mission to be at the frontiers of research. “The worst-case scenario for NSF is to not have other ideas that are waiting in the wings that will capture people’s imagination. We have to keep generating new ideas. We can’t just sit on our laurels,” she said.

In conclusion, Iacono encouraged potential entrants who may be on the fence to submit an idea, stressing:

This is an opportunity to really help shape the fundamental, basic research agenda of the nation by helping NSF with its long-term planning. Yes, there are some prizes involved as well, but … the real excitement is to have a voice in the mission of a really important agency. You have a chance to impact the future of the nation, the quality of life, the future direction of science and technology.

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