Science & Technology

The National Science Foundation Wants Your Idea for Their Next Project

You might be surprised to discover how many society-shaping inventions hatched from the minds of amateurs. But the bar code, the television, and the personal computer have already been invented. What's left for the average person to come up with? If you ask the National Science Foundation, the sky is the limit. And they want to know what your big idea might be — they just might start funding it.

Your Turn to Change the World

Let's get right to the good stuff: Starting today, the National Science Foundation is accepting any and all suggestions for areas of research they may want to focus on. It's called the NSF 2026 Idea Machine, and you don't have to be a scientist, engineer, or even a high school graduate to participate. They're looking for big ideas, and you don't need to be an expert to have a big idea. Speaking with Science Magazine, the head of NSF's Office of Integrative Activities Suzi Iacono said, "We don't want single projects, but rather big umbrella themes, with lots of community engagement and involving all units at NSF." In other words, you don't have to figure out how to make your idea happen — leave that to the NSF-funded researchers.

That's not to say that they're not looking for specific types of big ideas, though. According to Iacono, they're looking for things that NSF isn't currently funding, but that "fit within the mission of the agency ... We're still NSF, and we're not trying to change NSF." That means they're probably not going to choose projects like a mission to Mars, eternal life, or our passion project: the heat-seeking T-shirt cannon.

Instead, the most enticing ideas will be the ones that have an immediate or near-immediate impact or relevance. Is there a technology that you foresee having an impact on society in a major way in the next 5–15 years? NSF should be researching it. Are there global crises you worry are on the horizon, and you want someone brainstorming solutions? Warn NSF, and they might look into it. Or maybe you have something bigger in mind — a yearning for a fundamental theory to explain something ubiquitous and powerful. If these guidelines seem a little vague, keep reading to check out the ideas that the agency currently has piled on their plate.

2.5 Centuries of Technology

The public-soliciting 2026 Idea Machine is only one part of the 10 Big Ideas initiative, meant to shape the agency's goals in the long-term. Why 2026? Because that date marks the 250th anniversary of the United States, as good a jumping-off point as any for a new chapter of scientific and technological innovation. Unlike the Idea Machine, the other nine Big Ideas were sourced from within NSF. Here's a quick look at a couple of them, in case they spark any inspiration:

  • The Future of Work. Artificial intelligence and other technologies are only going to become a larger part of the workplace in the future. NSF wants to know how the human-technology relationship will unfold.
  • Understanding the Rules of Life. This project wants to pin down a precise relationship between an organism's genotype (its specific genetic profile) and its phenotype (the observable characteristics caused by interactions between the genotype and environment). We know DNA is a code; let's crack it.

  • NSF INCLUDES. This is a big idea about big ideas — the best way to get more of them is to make sure more people have the opportunity to grow their ideas to epic proportions. NSF INCLUDES focuses on broadening STEM education and career opportunities, especially in marginalized communities.
  • The Quantum Leap. Already, a lot of our technology depends on an understanding of physics on a subatomic scale. As the secrets of quantum computing are revealed, that will only become truer.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

Seriously, amateurs have come up with some of the biggest inventions in the world. "This American Life" contributor Jack Hitt explains in "Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

How NSF Helped Save Historic Indigenous Recordings

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 29, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.