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NSF wants to know what you think it should fund

Got an idea that could transform the world? The National Science Foundation (NSF) is all ears.

The $7.8 billion research agency in Alexandria, Virginia, already gets way more good research proposals from scientists than it can fund. But NSF officials worry they still might be missing something important. So this fall they will give the public a chance to win glory—and some money—in a contest dubbed The NSF 2026 Idea Machine.

“We don’t want [the idea] to be something NSF is already doing,” says Suzi Iacono, head of NSF’s Office of Integrative Activities. “We want it to be exciting, and original, and important in terms of the potential benefits to science and to society.”

The contest grows out of an internal planning exercise in 2016 that produced 10 “big ideas.” Many are cross-disciplinary efforts that tackle important societal problems—such as harnessing the data revolution and the future of work—or that expand the frontiers of knowledge—like multimessenger astrophysics and understanding the rules of life. A few are “process” ideas, like funding for midscale research facilities. But one box is simply labeled “NSF 2026.”

The box was a placeholder for what NSF Director France Córdova calls the need “for systemic community input into long-term program development.” And an NSF team led by Deborah Olster, a senior adviser within the agency’s social and behavioral sciences directorate, settled on a prize competition as the best way to address that need.

Here’s how it will work. On 31 August NSF will begin accepting online entries for the contest. Anyone can submit an idea—from individual scientists to professional societies to a high school science class. And the bigger the “grand challenge,” says Iacono, the better. “We don’t want single projects, but rather big umbrella themes, with lots of community engagement and involving all units at NSF.”

The only real restriction is that the idea must be something NSF could support. So no proposals to cure cancer, or send astronauts to Mars. “It has to fit within the mission of the agency,” she explains. “We’re still NSF, and we’re not trying to change NSF.”

NSF staff will take the first stab at winnowing down the ideas, Olster says, paying particular attention to those that may have already created a buzz within the community or cropped up in multiple entries. Then, the authors of the most promising 30 or so ideas will be asked to submit a video, which will be posted for public comment.

All that input will go to an advisory panel comprised of what Iacono calls “big thinker … who reflect multiple segments of the community.” The panel will then interview the top dozen or so candidates and propose a half-dozen finalists, leaving NSF to make the ultimate decision and announce the winners next summer. Each will receive “public recognition and a cash prize” yet to be determined, Olster says.

By redefining existing research initiatives into “big ideas,” NSF had hoped to capture the attention of the new administration and Congress—and eventually boost its budget. That hasn’t happened so far, notes Joel Parriott, head of public policy for the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington, D.C.

“The contest would seem to be in direct response to the tepid support that the original ‘big ideas’ have received,” says Parriott, a former program manager at the White House Office of Management and Budget. In Congress, lawmakers who serve on spending panels “have told us that they weren’t hearing much support for them from the community,” he says.

Ironically, Parriott says AAS is enthusiastic about several of the big ideas and sees their value in promoting research in those areas. But some astronomers are worried that funding for projects under the big ideas rubric could undermine NSF’s core support for their discipline. That’s also the fear of many mathematicians, says Karen Saxe, who heads the Washington, D.C., office of the American Mathematical Society (AMS).

To combat that view, last fall AMS and three other professional societies issued a “statement of support” for the big ideas initiative that urged its members to work with NSF as it rolls them out. “It’s our fault” if we stay on the sidelines, Saxe says. “The sooner we get involved, the greater the chance for community buy-in.”

The scientific community’s support for the new contest is critical to its success, NSF officials say. “There’s nothing we do that isn’t informed by some National Academies [of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine] report, or NSF workshop, or some advisory committee,” Iacono says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make the process better by having more people participate.”