The U.S National Science Foundations - 6 Big Research Ideas

6  Big Research Ideas

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced six “big research ideas” to help shape the future direction of the Foundation and build on its ongoing work.

Using 2011-2016 data from Scopus® and analyzed in SciVal, we examined the current status of US research in these areas, from the most ground-breaking collaborations to the top researchers and institutions, to determine not only what we’ve accomplished but what future research might reveal.

Idea #1 Harnessing Data

SciVal Keywords: Data science research, research data infrastructure, cyberinfrastructure, data-capable workforce. mathematics, statistics, computational science, data modeling, simulation and visualization.

The term “cyberinfrastructure,” coined by the NSF, refers to information storage systems and technology repositories that provide powerful and advanced capabilities.

Geographically, research in cyberinfrastructure is heavily concentrated in the Midwest, particularly in the states of Illinois and Indiana: 57 Publications from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and 53 Publications from Indiana University

Idea #2: Shaping the new human technology frontier

SciVal Keywords: Autonomous vehicles, 3D sculptures, smart homes, Fitbits, human-technology frontier, machine learning, how technology affects learning, human behavior and social organization, work and productivity, education.

Jonathan S. Gratch at the University of Southern California is the top author with 16 publications


Publications, including research into how virtual humans can help overcome barriers to obtaining truthful patient information.

Based on scholarly output, Jonathan S. Gratch at the University of Southern California is the top author in the emerging field of human-computer interaction.

Our lives are becoming increasingly infused with technology, such that it has inspired a new field of research unprecedented even just a few decades ago.

Lucas, G.M., Gratch, J., King, A. and 1 more It's only a computer: Virtual humans increase willingness to disclose. (2014) Computers in Human Behavior, 37 (1), pp. 94-100.

In terms of scholarly output by region, machine learning research is concentrated in the Midwest when restricted to the fields of Computer Sciences and Engineering: 51 Publications from Carnegie Mellon University versus 49 publications from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Idea #3: Identifying patterns for the rules of life

SciVal Keywords: Fractals in nature (Fibonacci number), genome, phenotypic emergence, biology, computer science, mathematics, physical sciences, behavior sciences, engineering.

The NSF plans to bolster research in “The Rules of Life”—a multidisciplinary endeavor across biology, computer science, mathematics, behavioral sciences and more.

Research in Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics is regionally concentrated most heavily in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. In this topic, Federal Agencies are the top producers of scholarly output: 3,238 Publications from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2,549 Publications from the U.S. Geological Survey; 2,251 Publications from the Smithsonian Institution.

Idea 4: leading the next quantum revolution

SciVal Keywords: Quantum mechanics, lasers, transistors, superposition, entanglement, precision sensors, quantum states.

The NSF’s fourth big idea focuses on the next quantum revolution, including brain-wrangling concepts like superposition and entanglement.

Geographically, states along the Upper Atlantic across to the Great Lakes have the greatest Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI)* in the field of quantum computing. The University of Pittsburgh is among the leading institutions in quantum computing based on its FWCI. Its publications are 897% more impactful than the average in the field.

Idea #5: navigating the new arctic

SciVal Keywords: Arctic, narwhal, Arctic fox, Arctic hare.

University of Alaska Fairbanks

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is the top institution for research in the Arctic, both in terms of the highest number of publications at 663 and the greatest total number of citations in the field at 7,347.

Mads Peter Eter Heide-Jørgensen, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, is the top author (by publication count) from a U.S. organization in research on narwhals, majestic sea creatures that reside in Arctic waters.

Mads Peter Eter Heide-Jørgensen has published 7 publications on narwhals

Idea #6 : windows on the universe and the era of multi-messenger astrophysics

SciVal Keywords: Multi-messenger astrophysics, cosmic rays, quantum and gravitational fields, stars, black holes, neutron stars.

With 222 publications, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is the top institution for research on neutron stars, based on total publications.

With 222 publications, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is the top institution for research on neutron stars, based on total publications.

The Center’s top collaborator is the University of Maryland, with 536 co-authors and 725 publications co-authored between the two. Their top-cited collaboration, with 182 citations, examines gamma-ray pulsars.

Abdo, A.A., Ajello, M., Allafort, A. and 208 more The second Fermi large area telescope catalog of gamma-ray pulsars. (2013) Astrophysical Journal, Supplement Series, 208 (2), pp. 1-59.

From cosmic rays and death throes to black holes and neutron stars, research on our massive galaxy continues to show that the sky is no longer the limit.

Chassande-Mottin, E., Hendry, M., Sutton, P.J. and 1 more. Multimessenger astronomy with the Einstein Telescope. (2011) General Relativity and Gravitation, 43 (2), pp. 437-464.

Columbia University’s Astrophysics Laboratory is a co-author on the top-cited paper in the field of multi-messenger astrophysics. The paper is a collaboration with researchers in France, Scotland and Wales.

*FWCI refers to the ratio of citations received relative to the expected world average for the subject field, publication type and publication year.

Source: American Institute of Physics. (14 June 2016). NSF Director Córdova Proposes Nine Big Ideas for the Foundation. Retrieved 02 August 2016 from

All data comes from SciVal – July 29, 2016 (Scopus data up to July 4, 2016) and includes all publication types (articles, papers, surveys, reviews, editorials, etc.)


About SciVal

Elsevier's SciVal offers quick, easy access to the research performance of 7,500 research institutions and 220 countries worldwide.  To learn more, visit our website.


About Scopus®

Scopus is the world’s leading abstract and citation database, and is used by institutions, governments (most recently by the NSF for the 2016 National Science and Engineering Indicators Report), as well as for university rankings around the world. To learn more, visit our website.