The NSF 2026 Idea Machine is a competition to help set the U.S. agenda for fundamental research in science and engineering. Participants can earn prizes of up to $26,000 and receive public recognition by suggesting the pressing research questions that need to be answered in the coming decade, the next set of “Big Ideas” for future investment by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Individuals or teams of up to five may enter. Contestants whose entries are selected for Stage 2 will be invited to elaborate on their Big Ideas through the submission of brief visual presentations.
Grand prize: Each final winning entry will receive a cash prize of $26,000 and its authors (individuals or teams) will be invited to a recognition event in the Washington, D.C. area.
If the winning entry was submitted by a team, the cash prize will go to the team leader, who will be responsible for sharing the prize with other team members.
If the winning entry resulted from a formal collaboration during stages 2 and 3 among the authors of multiple original, essentially identical entries, the cash prize will be divided among the authors / team leaders of the multiple original entries.
Each of the entries recommended by the Blue-Ribbon Panel for final consideration by NSF (approximately six) will receive an honorable mention at the winner recognition event.
Each author (individual or team member) of the entries selected by the Blue-Ribbon Panel for virtual interviews (approximately 12) will receive a cash prize of $1,000.
All authors (individual and teams) of each of the entries invited to submit video pitches (approximately 30) will receive thank-you letters from NSF leadership.
The authors of the top, approximately 100 entries will receive public recognition by having their Ideas posted on the Idea Machine website.