NSF advances 25 projects to explore bold ideas for transformative research

UCSC & HHMI Research Investigator Sofie Salama (left) and UCSC undergraduate student Taylor Real (right). Photo taken by Sandra Ramirez.

Sept. 15, 2020 – NSF priorities require bold approaches, built on core research. For our long-term agenda to have the greatest effect, we must venture beyond traditional paradigms to invite input from trusted stakeholders as well as new and unconventional partners. In this way, we ensure our future research themes are inclusive, innovative and in touch with the interests and priorities of the American people. 

Therefore, we devised a new, creative way to engage and seek input from a broad range of contributors. In the summer of 2018, NSF invited the scientific community, industry, nonprofits, and the public at large to participate in the NSF 2026 Idea Machine, a competition to help set the U.S. agenda for fundamental research in science and engineering. 

The Idea Machine encouraged individuals from all walks of life, age 14 or older, to submit pressing “grand challenges” in fundamental research or STEM education that have potential for great impact. We received about 800 entries from nearly every state in the U.S.; from established researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, teachers on behalf of their classes, and even high school and middle school students.

While the public comment phase has closed, you may still see the top 33 entries and video pitches at nsf2026imgallery.skild.com.

To further develop the themes that emerged from the top group of Idea Machine entries, NSF issued a Dear Colleague Letter to invite proposal submissions for conferences and EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research, or EAGERs. To date, NSF has awarded 21 EAGER and four conference projects totaling over $6 million. Scientists, engineers and educators from 27 institutions across the country will be involved in these highly interdisciplinary projects. 

The funded projects focus on diverse topics, including artificial general intelligence, environmental sustainability, evolution and diversity of human cognition, biomaterials, emergence, diversification and enhancement of the STEM workforce, and others. All are designed to engage multiple science and engineering disciplines to develop the top-ranked Idea Machine themes into thoughtful, cross-cutting research agendas.

Among the winners were: Richard Green, University of California-Santa Cruz, for NSF2026: EAGER: The evolution and diversity of the human brain. Read the award abstract