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National Science Foundation
Transformative Research
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Characteristics of Potentially Transformative Research

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Transformative research results often do not fit within established models or theories and may initially be unexpected or difficult to interpret; their transformative nature and utility might not be recognized until years later. Characteristics of transformative research are that it:

(a) Challenges conventional wisdom,

(b) Leads to unexpected insights that enable new techniques or methodologies, or

(c) Redefines the boundaries of science, engineering, or education.

Transformative research often results from a novel approach or new methodology. Thus, some (but not all) transformative research will be viewed as risky. An interdisciplinary approach to research often produces transformative research, but not all interdisciplinary research is transformative and not all transformative research is interdisciplinary. Although there is no set formula that produces transformative research, everyone seems to agree that “you know it when you see it.” Additionally, the Advisory Committee for GPRA (Government Performance and Results Act of 1993) Performance Assessment (AC/GPA) identifies awards it considered potentially transformative in the Report of the Advisory Committee for GPRA Performance Assessment, FY2009.

The following are examples of transformative research. The letters that follow reference the characteristics listed above:

  • 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. (a)
  • The discovery of metallic glasses, at first an obscure theoretical possibility that eventually made possible the operation of today’s integrated circuits. (a)
  • The idea that polar ice sheets could serve as neutrino detectors, originally tested in Greenland through an NSF SGER award. (a, b)
  • The discovery of the widespread exchange of genetic information in the environment, both among microbes and between microbes and higher organisms, which alters evolutionary changes such as in the development of disease resistance and revises our fundamental understanding of The Tree of Life. (a, b).
  • Research into large-scale, hypertext web searches that eventually led to the creation of Google. (b)
  • The use of magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for monitoring brain function, which greatly expanded the limits of behavioral research. (b)
  • The cross-disciplinary coordination of investigations into cognitive simulation and pedagogical techniques that resulted in today’s highly effective cognitive tutors. (b)
  • 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. (b, c)
  • Research on Very Large Scale Integrated circuit design methodology that not only led to the microelectronic revolution’s cell-phones, personal data assistants, and supercomputers, but also provided the intellectual framework of abstraction that pervades most of today’s computer science. (c)
  • 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. (c)


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