Learn About Transformative Research

The U.S. National Science Foundation gives high priority to research that pushes the frontiers of knowledge in science, engineering and education.

While NSF’s foundational support of research commonly results in transformative advances within fields of science or engineering, the agency also explicitly calls for potentially transformative proposals.

This page provides an introduction to transformative research and how NSF supports this type of work.

What is transformative research?

What is transformative research?


Credit: National Center for Supercomputer Applications

NSF uses the definition of transformative research found in the National Science Board’s report, Enhancing Support of Transformative Research at the National Science Foundation:

Transformative research challenges current understanding or provides pathways to new frontiers in science and engineering. It involves ideas, discoveries or tools that do one or both of the following:

  1. Radically change understanding of an important existing concept in science, engineering or education.

  2. Lead to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering or education.

Characteristics of transformative research

Characteristics of transformative research


Although there is no set formula that produces transformative research, a common refrain is that  "you know it when you see it," even if the transformative nature and utility of the research might not be recognized until years later. Some characteristics of transformative research are listed below.

Transformative research can be “high risk, high payoff”

Transformative research can be “high risk, high payoff”

Transformative research often results from a new approach or methodology. Thus, some (but not all) transformative research projects will be viewed as risky.

Transformative research often challenges conventional wisdom

Transformative research often challenges conventional wisdom

The results of transformative research may be unexpected, difficult to interpret, or may not fit within established models or theories.

Transformative research often blurs disciplinary boundaries

Transformative research often blurs disciplinary boundaries

Many (but not all) transformative research projects use interdisciplinary approaches.

  • The continental drift model — at first controversial and then proved correct 50 years later based on new analytical methods and sampling of the ocean floor.

  • The discovery of metallic glasses, at first an obscure theoretical possibility that eventually made possible the operation of today's integrated circuits.

  • The idea that polar ice sheets could serve as neutrino detectors, originally tested in Greenland through an NSF SGER award.

  • The discovery of the widespread exchange of genetic information in the environment, both among microbes and between microbes and higher organisms, which alters evolutionary trajectories (such as in the development of disease resistance) and changed researchers' understanding of the tree of life.

  • Research into large-scale hypertext web searches, which eventually led to the creation of Google.

  • The use of magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for monitoring brain function, which greatly expanded the frontiers of behavioral research.

  • The cross-disciplinary coordination of investigations into cognitive simulation and pedagogical techniques that resulted in today's highly effective cognitive tutors. 

  • The development of the Force Concept Inventory in physics, which set a direction for improvement in education based on measurement of students' deep understanding of scientific concepts.

  • Research on Very Large Scale Integration circuit-design methodology that not only led to cell phones, personal data assistants, and supercomputers, but also provided the intellectual framework of abstraction that pervades most of today's computer science.

  • The careful refinement of distance measures in the universe, intended to fine-tune cosmological parameters, which instead gave rise to radically new physics and the concept of dark energy.

How to submit a transformative research proposal

How to submit a transformative research proposal


1. Apply to any NSF program.

The extent to which a proposed project is potentially transformative is one of the considerations included in NSF's Intellectual Merit review criterion. Reviewers are asked to pay special attention to proposals that include potentially transformative research, and NSF program officers are asked to identify potentially transformative research proposals for funding in all of NSF’s programs. 

 

2. Apply to a program in one of NSF's special investment areas.

The Annual NSF Budget to Congress identifies investment areas that are notable for being interdisciplinary, supported by numerous NSF directorates, and intended to have transformative impact across science and engineering fields. These investment areas may result in a single program or may provide a theme for support in numerous programs.

3. Explore one of NSF's special funding mechanisms.

The EAGER funding mechanism supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. This work could be considered especially "high risk, high payoff" in the sense that it involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

An NSF program officer may recommend that a research grant have its funding extended for up to two years beyond the grant’s initial award period. This Special Creativity Extension allows the grant recipient to pursue adventurous, "high-risk" opportunities in the same general research area as the original grant.

The accomplishment based renewal is a special type of renewal proposal appropriate only for an investigator who has made significant contributions, over a number of years, in the area of research addressed by the proposal. Investigators are strongly urged to contact the cognizant NSF program officer before developing a proposal using this format.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)


As part of the larger federal research and development effort, NSF has an overarching mandate to help keep all the fields and disciplines of science and engineering research healthy and strong. 

NSF’s "foundational" support of research — through its core disciplinary programs; its interdisciplinary programs; and its support for facilities, equipment, instrumentation, centers of research and activities such as workshops — commonly results in transformative advances within fields of science or engineering. 

But NSF also explicitly calls for potentially transformative proposals to help ensure that NSF and the research community maintain a focus on the frontiers of science and engineering.

Investigators working at the frontier might need to take high risks in their research. NSF encourages and supports these ventures, working to ensure the agency and its reviewers support proposals with great potential, even if they may challenge current paradigms or otherwise be considered risky.

It is a difficult challenge to identify potentially transformative research, and different types of research proposals may produce transformative results. Proposals may:

  • Request support for dramatically new ways of conceptualizing and addressing major scientific or technological challenges. 

  • Request support for key incremental or threshold advances — such as new methods or analytical techniques — that, if successful, could put a discipline on a new scientific trajectory, provide tools that allow unprecedented insights, or radically accelerate the rate of data collection.

Finally, some proposals may generate serendipitous transformative results that would have been almost impossible to predict prior to conducting the research.

Questions reviewers and NSF staff may consider in determining the potential for a project to produce transformative results include:

  • Does the proposed research challenge conventional wisdom or direction of a field?

  • Does the proposed research bring new perspectives to an area?

  • Is the proposed research at the interface of disciplines or does it involve promising new interdisciplinary methods?

While NSF asks reviewers and panelists to provide a summary rating or score for each review, it is the narrative comments that provide the most information about the relative merits of a proposal, including its potential to lead to transformative research.

No. A proposal within a single field of science, engineering and/or education can lead to transformative results.

No. A proposal could demonstrate that the results are readily attainable and yet will have a transformative impact.

No. For example, conventional projects have led to unexpected and transformative results.

Absolutely. The proposal should state how and why the proposed "tool" can enable transformative research.

Yes. The potentially transformative nature of a proposal is only one of several characteristics considered in the development of a comprehensive evaluation. Other proposal review criteria may be found in NSF's Grant Proposal Guide and may also be stated in the specific program announcement or solicitation. 

The evaluation of a proposal recognizes that any given proposal will have particular strengths and weaknesses when considering the entire suite of review criteria.

NSF does not have a specific budget target for transformative research funding. However, NSF strives to promote and fund potentially transformative research throughout all of its programs and funding mechanisms. These include:

  • Supporting new activities, like Ideas Labs, which are designed to ask and answer questions that could lead to transformative work.

  • Supporting researchers at very exploratory stages of their work through the EAGER funding mechanism.

  • Supporting potentially transformative work within a field through NSF's disciplinary "core" programs.

  • Encouraging collaborations of interdisciplinary teams, or perhaps teams involving industrial partners, in many NSF solicitations to support the development of new and potentially transformative perspectives. 

  • Supporting facilities and centers to provide the tools, instruments and infrastructure scientists and engineers need for potentially transformative work.

No. However, an NSF division, office or directorate may choose to designate funds to support projects with particularly noteworthy characteristics, including their potential for transformative research.

Program officers play a critical role in providing guidance to the community on the various funding opportunities at NSF. If a program officer advises against an EAGER submission, there may be other funding opportunities available. If your project involves multiple disciplines, you may find it useful to discuss the proposed work with another program officer. You also retain the option to submit the proposal as an EAGER, which would then receive a review of the proposal from the program officer.

Contact any program officer who may have expertise in or near the area of your proposed research. If the first officer you contact is not the most appropriate, he/she should be able to direct you to the appropriate person. The program officer may also decide to discuss the proposed research with other program officers.

This is a difficult question to answer without placing it in context. Promoting and funding potentially transformative research is a high priority for NSF, so the potential for transformative research would be considered very positively in making a funding decision.

Although this is a common perception, it does not appear consistent with the experience at NSF. The agency’s program officers are informed that promoting and funding potentially transformative research is a high priority for the agency, and they are expected to communicate this to panels and ad hoc reviewers. It should also be noted that NSF program officers have the responsibility and authority to recommend awards for proposals that were not among the most highly ranked by the review panels as part of their charge to develop and maintain a balanced portfolio of investments.

Risk is only one aspect of proposal review; there can be multiple reasons for declines. Investigators are encouraged to discuss the specific reasons for a decline with their program officer. Unfortunately, due to budget limitations, NSF declines a high percentage of meritorious proposals.

No. Reviewers will be asked to comment on the quality of past work. However, due to the possibly risky nature of potentially transformative research, it is expected that even high-quality research may not initially succeed. Please note that your proposal may contain up to five pages to describe the results of prior NSF funding.