The Sciences

The Foundational Questions Institute (Anthony Aguirre)

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollMar 28, 2006 10:08 PM

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The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) was mentioned in the comments of Mark's post about John Barrow's Templeton Prize. This is a new organization that is devoted to supporting innovative ideas at the frontiers of physics and cosmology. It is led by Max Tegmark of MIT and Anthony Aguirre of UCSC, two leading young cosmologists, backed up by an extremely prestigious Scientific Advisory Panel. Sounds like a great idea, but some of us have questions, primarily concerning the source of funding for FQXi -- currently the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is devoted to bringing together science and religion, which may or may not be your cup of tea. I'm already on the record as turning down money from them (see also this Business Week article) -- and believe me, turning down money is not part of my usual repertoire. But Max and Anthony and the rest are good scientists, so we here at Cosmic Variance thought it would be good to hear the story behind FQXi in their own words. We invited Anthony to contribute a guest post about the goals and procedures of the new institute, and he was kind enough to agree. Feel free to ask questions and be politely skeptical (or for that matter enthusiastically supportive), and we can all learn more about what's going on. ---------- I (Anthony Aguirre) have been invited by Sean to write a guest blog entry discussing an exciting new project that Max Tegmark and I have been leading: Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology ("FQX"). This program was publicly announced in October, and the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) was formally launched as a legal entity in February, as was its first call for proposals. There is a plethora of information on FQXi at www.fqxi.org, but the kind invitation by Cosmic Variance provides a good opportunity to outline informally what FQXi is, why we think it is important, to address some reservations voiced in this forum, and to generate some discussion in the physics and cosmology community. What is FQXi all about? Its stated mission is "To catalyze, support, and disseminate research on questions at the foundations of physics and cosmology, particularly new frontiers and innovative ideas integral to a deep understanding of reality, but unlikely to be supported by conventional funding sources." Less formally, the aim of FQXi is to allow researchers in physics, cosmology, and related fields who like to think about and do real research about really big, deep, foundational or even "ultimate" questions, to actually do so -- when otherwise they could not. We boiled this type of research down into two defining terms: the research should be foundational (with potentially significant and broad implications for our understanding of the deep or "ultimate" nature of reality) and it should be unconventional (consisting of rigorous research which, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of funding.) The particular types of research FQXi will support are detailed in the FQXi Charter and in the first call for proposals, which also features a handy (but by no means whatsoever comprehensive) list of example projects, and their likelihood of being suitable for FQXi funding. In addition to straightforward grants, FQXi will run various other programs -- "mini"-grants, conferences, essay contests, a web forum, etc. -- focused on the same sort of science. Why is FQXi important? There are a number of foundational questions that are of deep interest to humanity at large -- and are the (often hidden) passion of and inspiration for researchers -- but which various financial and "social" pressures make it very difficult for researchers to actually pursue. National funding sources, for example, tend to shy aware from research that is high-risk/high- reward, or speculative, or very fundamental, or unconventional, or "too philosophical", and instead support research using fairly proven methods with a high probability of advancing science along known routes. There is nothing wrong with this, and it creates a large amount of excellent science. But it leaves some really interesting questions on the sidelines. We go on at length about this in the FQXi Charter -- but the researchers FQXi aims to support will know all too well what the problems are. Our goal is to fund the research into foundational questions in physics and cosmology that would otherwise go unfunded. More money to support really exciting, interesting, and, yes, fun research seems like an unreservedly good thing. Nonetheless, a couple of significant reservations have been voiced to us, both by writers on this blog and others. These are: 1) Some feel research that is very speculative or "borderline philosophical" is just a waste of time and resources -- if the research was worth doing, conventional agencies would fund it. We won't accept this criticism from anyone who has worked on either time machines or the arrow of time (so Sean is out) :), but from others we acknowledge that they feel this way, we respectfully disagree, and we think that many of the giants of 20th century physics (Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, Pauli, etc.) would also disagree. Ultimately, those who feel this way are free not to participate in FQXi. We also note that we think it would by great if some private donors were also to support more conventional research in a way that complemented or supplemented federal funding (as they do in, e.g., the Sloan and Packard fellowships); that, however, is not the case here: the donation supporting FQXi is expressely for the purpose of supporting foundational research. Which brings us to... 2) The second major reservation concerns FQXi's current sole source of funding: the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), an organization that espouses and supports the "constructive dialogue between science and religion." It is understandable that some people may be suspicious of JTF's involvement with FQXi, and in today's political climate in which Intelligent Design and other movements seek to undermine science in order to promote a religious and political agenda, such suspicion is especially understandable. But it is as important as ever to also be open-minded and objective. The salient points, we think, regarding JTF and FQXi are:

  • FQXi is a non-profit scientific grant-awarding organization fully independent from its donors (we are actively seeking other donors beyond JTF, see below) and operated in accordance with its Charter. Proposal funding is determined via a standard and rigorous peer-review process, and an expert panel appointed by FQXi. The structure of FQXi is such that donors -- including JTF -- have no control or influence over individual proposal selection or renewal. Specifically, scientific decisions are made (as enshrined in the FQXi corporate Bylaws) by the Scientific Directorate (Max & I), on the basis of advice from review panels and the Scientific Advisory Panel. The only condition of the JTF grant to FQXi is that FQXi's grantmaking be consistent with the FQXi Charter, which, as stated previously, can be viewed in its entirity at fqxi.org.

  • JTF's stated interest in FQXi is captured in the FQXi Charter: the questions being tackled by researchers funded by FQXi intimately connect with and inform not just scientific fields, but also philosophy, theology and religious belief systems. Answers to these questions will have profound intellectual, practical, and spiritual implications for anyone with deep curiosity about the world's true nature.

  • While FQXi's funding is currently all from JTF, we have been strongly encouraged by JTF to seek (and are actively working on finding) additional donors; furthermore, there is no guarantee of JTF funding beyond the first four years -- though we certainly hope FQXi will go on long past the initial four-year phase.

  • As for JTF benefiting "by association" with FQXi and the great research we hope that it will support, well, we feel that JTF has been extremely generous not just in giving a large sum of money to science, without strings attached, and with a great deal of support through the complex process of setting up FQXi as an independent institute of just the sort that Max & I wanted. If all this reflects well on JTF, I would submit that they deserve it.

We've tried hard to make FQXi's operation and goals as transparent as possible, so those in the community can make informed decisions on whether they would like to participate in what we are hoping to do. We are very excited by the proposals that are coming in so far, and invite interested scientists to take a look at the call for proposals before it is too late (April 2). For those who are not actively researching foundational questions, we hope to have a very active public discussion and outreach program for both scientists and the interested public; we invite you to periodically check the FQXi website. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss FQXi at Cosmic Variance.

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