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Physics of the Observer
An International Request for Proposals

Download the official RFP document here.


The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) is an independent, philanthropically funded grant-awarding non-profit organization.

Our 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.

FQXi offers grants that serve a three-fold purpose:

  • To encourage and support rigorous, innovative, and influential scientific research and collaborations on foundational questions in physics and cosmology, which may have significant and broad implications for a deep understanding of reality;

  • To redress incrementalism in research programming by establishing or expanding new 'islands' of understanding via flexible funding of high-risk, high-reward research in these areas;

  • To provide the public with a deeper understanding of known and future discoveries in these areas, and their potential implications for our worldview.

In support of these goals, FQXi will offer grants of varying value to exceptional and rigorous scientific research proposals that meet the criteria described below.


FQXi’s programming encompasses both 'open' requests for proposals and more targeted programs in particular areas of thought.  The current request for proposals targets research on Physics of the Observer, both in physics and also in related fields including cosmology, astrophysics, philosophy of physics, complex systems, biophysics, neuroscience, computer science, and mathematics.

Many problems in physics and cosmology implicitly or explicitly include an observer. But an understandable tendency within physics to focus on objective phenomena and eschew subjective considerations has led to a general avoidance of discussing exactly what an observer is. Not only has this habit avoided an intrinsically interesting question, it has also led to a situation in which many thinkers implicitly employ quite different meanings of "observer" in their work. They are then not able (or willing) to confront the implications of their definition on the questions they may address.

While the term "observer" is used frequently in physics and cosmology, it is thus often with the idea that its real meaning is unimportant and "any definition will do". It is controversial, almost taboo, to discuss directly the nature of observers themselves and the import the nature may have. Hence, it is a ripe problem for programs that can be serious and respectable yet foundational and daring.


In this competition, grants totaling about $2.0M will be available to researchers in academic and other non-profit institutions for projects up to two years in duration, beginning August 2016 and ending July 2018. Grant applications will be subject to a competitive process of external and confidential expert peer review similar to that employed by all major U.S. scientific funding agencies.

Proposals will be evaluated according to their relevance and impact.
  • Relevance: Proposals should be topical, foundational, and unconventional.

    • Topical: This RFP is limited to research in physics, cosmology, and closely related fields, such as philosophy, biophysics, complex systems, neuroscience, computer science, mathematics, etc. Research should bear on the topic of Physics of the Observer. Appropriate research topics in this category will address questions such as :

      1. What does being an observer mean?
      2. What sort of physical systems have the requisite properties for those systems to construe various types of observers?
      3. Are there interesting questions, to which the answers depend upon how we think of observers?

      (A longer list of example questions is given here.)
    • Foundational: This RFP is limited to research with potentially significant and broad implications for our understanding of the deep or “ultimate” nature of reality.

    • Unconventional: This RFP is intended to fill a gap, not a shortfall, in conventional funding. We wish to enable research that, because of its speculative, non-mainstream, or high-risk nature, would otherwise go unperformed due to lack of available monies. Thus, although there will be inevitable overlaps, an otherwise scientifically rigorous proposal that is a good candidate for an FQXi grant will generally not be a good candidate for funding by the NSF, DOE, etc.—and vice versa.

  • Impact: Proposals will be rated according to their expected scientific impact per dollar, taking all relevant factors into account, such as:

    • Intrinsic intellectual merit, scientific rigor and originality
    • Potential for significant contribution to basic science relevant to the topic and a high product of likelihood for success and importance if successful (i.e., high-risk research can be supported as long as the potential payoff is also very high)
    • The likelihood of the research opening fruitful new lines of scientific inquiry
    • The feasibility of the research in the given time frame
    • The qualifications of the Principal Investigator and team with respect to the proposed topic
    • The part a grant may play in career development
    • Cost effectiveness: Tight budgeting is encouraged in order to maximize the research impact of the project as a whole, with emphasis on scientific return per dollar rather than per proposal
    • Potential to impact the greater scientific community as well as the general public via effective outreach and dissemination of the research results

Because of the unconventional nature of the FQXi mission, we encourage part-time work (15% to 40%), in parallel with the scientist's usual research, rather than full-time appointments or studentships. Acceptable uses of grant funds include:
  • Student or postdoctoral salary and benefits for part of the academic year
  • Summer salary and teaching buyout for academics
  • Support for specific projects during sabbaticals
  • Assistance in writing or publishing books (please see FAQ)
  • Modest allowance for justifiable lab equipment, computers, publication charges, and other supplies
  • Modest travel allowance
  • Experimental equipment (Keep in mind that while FQXi is very interested in experimental proposals, the total available funding means that funding for large equipment purchases will be unlikely.)
  • Development of large workshops, conferences, or lecture series for professionals (Note that small programs of this type, and others costing less than US $15K, are best supported by an FQXi Mini-Grant. Mini-Grant applications, however, are restricted to FQXi Members.)
  • Development of outreach or educational programs for laypeople that disseminate knowledge regarding foundational questions in physics and cosmology (The impact criterion, in this case, will be judged primarily on the proposal’s ability to disseminate knowledge rather than primarily on the development of knowledge.)
  • Overhead of at most 15%

To aid prospective applicants in determining whether a project is appropriate for FQXi, we have provided lists of questions and topics that make suitable targets for research funded under this program on the Examples page. Applicants can also review projects supported under prior Large Grant programs.


Applications will be accepted electronically through a standard form on our website (click here for application) and evaluated in a two-part process, as follows:

1. INITIAL PROPOSALDUE January 20, 2016—Must include:
  • A 300–500 word summary of the project, explicitly addressing why it is topical, foundational and unconventional

  • A draft budget with description not exceeding 200 words, including an approximate total cost over the life of the award and explanation of how funds would be spent

  • A Curriculum Vitae for each Principal Investigator, which MUST be in PDF format, each including:

    • Education and employment history

    • A list of references that include up to five previous publications relevant to the proposed research and up to five additional representative publications

    • Full publication list

A review panel assembled by FQXi will screen each Initial Proposal according to the criteria in Section III. Based on their assessment, the applicant may be invited to submit a Full Proposal, around March 2016, perhaps with feedback from FQXi on improving the proposal. Please keep in mind that however positive FQXi may be about a proposal at any stage, it may still be turned down for funding after full peer review.

2. FULL PROPOSALDUE May 11, 2016—Must Include:
  • Contact info for the person administering your grant (e.g., your institute’s grant specialist or department head)

  • A 200-word project abstract, suitable for publication in an academic journal

  • A project summary not exceeding 200 words, explaining the work and its significance to laypeople

  • A detailed description of the proposed research, not to exceed 15 single-spaced 11-point pages, including a short statement of how the application fits into the applicant's present research program, and a description of how the results might be communicated to the wider scientific community and general public

  • A detailed budget over the life of the award. Budget must include justification and utilization distribution (preferably drafted by the applicant’s institution’s grant officer or equivalent). Please make sure your budget includes administrative overhead if needed by your institute (15% is the maximum allowable overhead)

  • A list, for all project senior personnel, of all present and pending financial support, including project name, funding source, dates, amount, and status (current or pending)

  • Evidence of tax-exempt status of grantee institution, if other than a US university. For information on determining tax-exempt status of international organizations and institutes, please review the information here.

  • Names of 3 recommended referees

  • Curricula Vitae for all project senior personnel, including:

    • Education and employment history

    • A list of references that include up to five previous publications relevant to the proposed research, and up to five additional representative publications

    • Full publication list

  • For past awardees only: A 250-word statement explaining what was done with previous funding and how that ties in to the current proposal (if at all)

Completed Full Proposals will undergo a competitive process of external and confidential expert peer review, evaluated according to the criteria described in Section III. A review panel of scientists in the relevant fields will be convened to produce a final rank ordering of the proposals, which will determine the grant winners, and make budgetary adjustments if necessary. Public award announcements will be made on or about the last week of August 2016.


FQXi will direct these grants through a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. FQXi will solicit and review grant applications, and on the basis of these reviews, FQXi will advise the DAF on what grants to make. After grants have been made by the DAF, FQXi will work with the DAF to monitor the grantee’s performance via grant reports. In this way, researchers will continue to interact with FQXi, while the DAF interacts mostly with the researchers’ institutes’ administrative or grants management offices.


This RFP is sponsored by the following organizations:
  • Foundational Questions Institute, PO Box 3655, Decatur, GA 30031, USA
  • John Templeton Foundation, 300 Conshohocken State Road, Suite 500, West Conshohocken, PA 19428

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