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The Physics of What Happens
An International Request for Proposals

Download the official RFP document here.

I. BACKGROUND ON FQXi

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.

II. FOCUS ON "EVENTS": THE PHYSICS OF WHAT HAPPENS

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 the Physics of "Events" both in physics and also in related fields including cosmology, astrophysics, philosophy of physics, complex systems, biophysics, computer science, and mathematics.

Everyday reality is largely made up of events: things that happen and don't "un-happen". These events separate the past from the future via the present, in which events are "happening". The world of fundamental physics, however, is quite different.

In general relativity (GR) for instance, "event" simply refers to a space-time location, which may or may not coincide with something happening. The theory has no fundamental entity that corresponds to an event that "happens" or does not. In quantum mechanics, the measurement of some observable can constitute an "event", but this process is subject to differing theoretical and philosophical interpretations. The evolving wavefunction -- like the evolving matter and gravitational fields in GR -- has no "event" built in; they must be identified by reference to a laboratory or other macroscopic observer. Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent events in the macroscopic world should really be considered quantum measurements of the archetypal variety studied in the quantum foundations literature.

Thus, both of our fundamental theories of physics are by themselves event-free (or at best "event-lite"), and we face the question of how to draw a firm connection between these theories and the events that make up what happens in experienced reality. Drawing those connections -- and through the process, analyzing the notion of "event" as it appears in its many forms throughout physics -- is the aim of this request for proposals.

III. EVALUATION CRITERIA & PROJECT ELIGIBILITY

In our 2015 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 September 1, 2015 and ending September 1, 2017. 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, computer science, mathematics, etc. Research should bear upon the Physics of Events. Appropriate research topics in this category will address questions such as (a longer list of example questions is given here):

      1. Are events fundamental and primary, or are they emergent?
      2. What is the relationship between events and causality?
      3. Do events have definite locations in space and time, or are they something else?
      4. How does the flow of time emerge from a sequence of events?

    • 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 use 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
  • 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 on the proposal's ability to disseminate knowledge rather than develop it. Note that small programs of this type are best supported by an FQXi Mini-Grant. Mini-Grant applications, however, are restricted to FQXi Members.)
  • Overhead of at most 15% (Please note if this is an issue with your institute, you can contact FQXi to learn about other organizations that can help administer FQXi grants.)

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.

IV. APPLICATION PROCESS

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 February 15, 2015—Must include:
  • A 300–500 word summary of the project, explicitly addressing why it is topical, foundational and unconventional

  • A draft budget 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 the Principal Investigator, which MUST be in PDF format, including:

    • Education and employment history

    • A list of references of 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 Principal Investigator (PI) may be invited to submit a Full Proposal, on or about March 15, 2015, 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 17, 2015—Must Include:
  • Cover sheet

  • 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, with justification and utilization distribution (preferably drafted by your institution's grant officer or equivalent)

  • 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 of 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 recommendations will be made on or about July 1, 2015.

V. FUNDING PROCESS

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 their institutes' administrative or grants management offices.

VI. FURTHER FUNDING OPPORTUNITY

Successful applicants may be invited, either at the time of funding, at midway through the project, or at project's end, to apply for a larger supplemental or followup grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, which is providing the funds for this RFP.

VII. SPONSORS

This RFP is sponsored by the following organizations:
  • Foundational Questions Institute, PO Box 3655, Decatur, GA 30031, USA
  • Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc., PO Box N-7776, Lyford Cay, Nassau, Bahamas

     
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