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What is FQXi?

The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) is an exciting new experiment in philanthropically funded non-profit science, focusing on revolutionary and rigorous research in selected areas of physics, cosmology, and related fields.

What is non-profit science?

Non-profit science is research performed at non-profit institutions, such as universities and colleges, but not at corporations or businesses that wish to profit from their discoveries. National governments usually fund this type of research. For example, through the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. government may award a research grant to a qualified individual doing physics research at a university, her employer; by contrast, a corporation would fund its own research and scientists with proceeds from the sales of products, often developed in-house.

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What is philanthropically funded non-profit science, and how does it compare to coventional funding sources?

Today, national governments pay for the vast majority of non-profit science. For decades, this government-funded system has been—and still is—a highly effective way to support most non-profit research; in fact, our technology-dependent society is proof of its overall success.

However, certain types of research, for various reasons, will generally not be funded by governments (or corporations, for that matter) and therefore is not performed, irrespective of its appeal or potential for ground-breaking discovery. FQXi—backed by private donors—aims to help fill this funding gap. FQXi directs grants through a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. While the DAF administers the grantmaking program, FQXi advises the DAF on what grants to make. Thus FQXi, through the generosity of philanthropists, represents an innovative way to support certain non-profit science projects.

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If this research is worth doing, why don't governments support it?

Government funding sources tend not to fund risky, speculative, unconventional, or philosophical research; rather, they usually support programs likely to be successful or utilizing proven methodologies. Although this system has a long history of producing excellent science, it also has some disadvantages.

First, it leaves some of the most interesting issues—the kinds of questions that inspire people to become scientists in the first place—untouched. For example, consider the subject of time. Did it have a beginning? Why does it flow in one direction? Can we travel backwards in it? Provocative questions like these have fascinated thinkers throughout history, and, excitingly, recent research has turned up many profound, though incomplete, answers. Yet, researchers proposing to investigate such questions are not likely to be funded by conventional sources.

Second, conservative funding mechanisms tend to produce conservative science. Many researchers want to work on high-risk, high-reward projects, but risk-averse conventional funding sources often withhold support. This tendency not only affects individual projects, but careers too: the presence—or lack—of grants to individuals plays a key role in promotion and tenure systems at non-profit research institutions. A key goal of FQXi is thus to allow researchers to tackle problems they themselves find compelling, without regard to popular trends in funding allocation.

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What can be done about the lack of government support for research on “foundational questions”?

At FQXi, we believe that one solution to the lack of government support for research on “foundational questions” is to develop a new type of non-profit, scientific agency financed by philanthropists, nimble enough to support high-risk, high-reward research. FQXi is this new type of agency:
  • Our funds originate from private donors, not governments or corporations, including small and large contributions from individuals and foundations;
  • Our programs are targeted towards “cutting edge,” rigorous research in certain areas of physics, cosmology, and related fields.
The goal of FQXi is to support research, made possible through private donations, into “foundational questions” in certain areas of physics, cosmology, and related fields, which would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of monetary support.

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Wouldn't it be simpler if there were more sources of government funding for research?

Yes. Although we at FQXi do not think the current system is broken—government funding works well for most non-profit research areas, and has resulted in excellent science—it is nonetheless true that some fields, and some types of research, are not currently well-funded by this system.

FQXi grant programs are intended to complement government support for a narrow subset of (fascinating) scientific endeavors often overlooked by conventional non-profit funding sources.

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Given shrinking government research budgets, why doesn't FQXi support more conventional research?

The FQXi mission is to support foundational, unconventional research, filling a particular gap that FQXi, and its donors, believes exists. While other private donors and foundations, such as the Sloan and Packard Foundations, support conventional research, ultimately, private funds cannot hope to replace federal monies. (Our entire research budget, for example, is thousands of times smaller than this year’s U.S. federal science outlay alone.) Ultimately, it is the view of FQXi that the solution to the problem of shrinking governmental research budgets is to increase government research funding.

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