NSF News

NSF selects 7 winners from its first-ever NSF 2026 Idea Machine prize competition

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today the selection of four grand prize and three meritorious prize winners for its first-ever NSF 2026 Idea Machine prize competition. The awardees are being honored today at a ceremony at NSF headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

The NSF 2026 Idea Machine encouraged individuals from all walks of life, age 14 or older, to submit pressing “grand challenges” requiring fundamental research in science, engineering, or STEM education in order to inform NSF’s long-term planning. Approximately 800 entries were received from nearly every state in the U.S. and from established researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, teachers on behalf of their classes, and high school and middle school students. The submitted entries went through five selection stages, including a public comment phase. A blue-ribbon panel of 12 eminent, broad thinkers recommended seven ideas for the final prizes that were found to be exciting, ambitious, creative, and highly interdisciplinary.

“This competition is an unprecedented opportunity for the public and scientific community to identify challenging questions that they would like to see the research community address,” said Suzi Iacono, head of NSF's Office of Integrative Activities. “Developing and using a new mechanism like the Idea Machine ensures open exploration at the frontiers of science and engineering, encourages outside the box thinking, crosses boundaries in innovative ways and promises to fill recognized gaps in our knowledge.”

Each team winning a grand prize will receive $26,000. Teams winning a meritorious prize will receive $10,000. However, the real prize is the opportunity to promote the progress of science and engineering by helping NSF identify possible new areas of research. Later this year, NSF will invite proposals for workshops and Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGERs) to engage the research community in further development of the research themes identified through the NSF 2026 Idea Machine.

The grand prize winners are:   

  • Engineered Living Materials: Neel Joshi*, Anna Duraj-Thatte and Avinash Manjula-Basavanna - Harvard University
  • From Thinking to Inventing: Matthias Scheutz and Vasanth Sarathy - Tufts University
  • Public Carbon Capture and Sequestration: Karin Pfennig - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • Emergence: Complexity from the Bottom Up: Abraham Herzog-Arbeitman* - University of Chicago

The meritorious prize winners are:

  • Unlocking the Future of Infrastructure: Juan Pablo Gevaudan* - University of Colorado at Boulder; Chelsea Heveran - Montana State University
  • Reinventing Scientific Talent: Jason Williams - Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
  • Theory of Conscious Experience: Vincent Conitzer - Duke University 

To view the video pitches of the top 33 ideas submitted to this competition as well as more information on this competition, visit the NSF 2026 Idea Machine website.


*Academic affiliation at the time of entry submission