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Information as Fuel
An International Request for Proposals

Initial applications due March 31, 2019 (11:59PM Eastern Standard Time).

Download the official RFP document here.


The Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) is an independent, philanthropically funded grant-awarding non-profit organization. FQXi was launched in 2006 with the mission 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.” Its goal – and success – has been to create a community of researchers, body of research, and worldwide institutional umbrella that supports daring, innovative, and deep research on scientific questions that span from the beginning of the universe to the depths of the behavior of matter to the mysteries of consciousness.

A major project underway by FQXi, of which this RFP is a part, concerns “Information as Fuel” (IaF). Since at least the nineteenth century, when people sought to understand how steam engines work and what limits their efficiency, it has been known that there is an intimate link between information and thermodynamics. The connection between statistical physics and entropy is well known in systems at equilibrium (such as when two objects in contact with each other are at the same temperature), and in systems with very large numbers of particles (such as the molecules of gas in a vehicle engine). In contrast, relations between information and thermodynamics in non-equilibrium situations, and in systems with relatively few available states or where quantum effects play a role, are less well understood. The conventional role of information in control engineering can be illustrated by Watt’s governor, which first measures the speed of the engine, then compares the signal with a set point, and finally manipulates the flow of steam. Information can play an utterly different role in nanoscale systems, where it becomes, as it were, a co-equal of energy.

Early ideas of Maxwell in the nineteenth century and Szilard in the twentieth opened up possibilities for relating information to work. New ideas and theories have been developed that seek to understand non-equilibrium systems—especially those involving only one or a few bits of information—better. Analysis of the physical limits of information acquisition and erasure has established a fundamental connection between information and the second law of thermodynamics. Inverting this relationship leads to the intriguing possibility that (ordered) information may serve as a resource—in effect, a type of fuel. Expressed in the starkest terms, it implies that one could run an engine using information either as the fuel or as the way to dump entropy to satisfy the second law. Other conjectures have been accompanied by thought experiments that try to elucidate the implications of newly developed concepts.

Although significant theoretical progress like this has started to be made, experimental study of the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of information generally has tended to trail some distance behind. One reason for this is that simple systems that involve only one or a few bits of information can be very difficult to study experimentally—as are non-equilibrium systems that involve a large number of degrees of freedom in a coherent fashion. The energy associated with one bit of information is extremely small. Studying the thermodynamic characteristics of a single bit of information therefore requires tiny systems, along with exceptionally sensitive measurements of energy and heat flow. Low temperatures may also be necessary, so that thermal agitation does not swamp the delicate effects. At these scales quantum effects also become significant.

Fortunately, advances in nanotechnology are putting practical experiments with such systems within reach. For example, it is possible to cool tiny vibrating beams to their quantum ground state, and to control single electrons in small quantum dots. Ideas abound, from making engines which turn one bit of information into mechanical work (a so-called Szilard engine), to creating disorder in an information register to dissipate entropy in the way required by the second law of thermodynamics. Room temperature systems are of interest for biology, where information processing occurs on several hierarchical scales from molecular ratchets in cells to information processing in genetics and evolution. Quantum information can be created and manipulated in a variety of implementations, ranging from trapped ions to solid state superconducting circuits to spin states of electrons. There is rich scope for applying concepts of quantum thermodynamics to quantum systems out of equilibrium.


This program, unlike previous FQXi programs, will focus entirely on experiments on the IaF topic. The program will fund 4-8 research groups globally with three-year grants ranging from $500,000 to $2,500,000 per research group. Each group will design, perform, and report on one major experiment or related sequence of experiments, in which the group will incorporate a significant theoretical effort as part of the experiment’s motivation, design, and interpretation. FQXi will disburse up to $8,000,000 in grants for this new program, funded through support from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

The IaF grant program seeks proposals for research that provides new insights into fundamental aspects of reality through experimentation in the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of information. It is anticipated that the experiments will need simultaneous but independent measurements of the evolution of thermodynamics and of information processing in a given system. FQXi is especially interested in experimental approaches or methods that investigate how information may act as a kind of fuel, although it is willing to support research on any of the topics listed in Appendix B, or on topics not listed but closely related. While many of the ideas listed mention the construction of a specific technological product, the primary motivation for research supported by FQXi is the pursuit of new insights into basic features of the natural world.

The Examples page provides a more detailed outline of the topics and questions that fall under the envisioned scope of this program.


In this competition, grants totaling up to $8.0M will be available to researchers in academic and other non-profit institutions for projects up to three years in duration, beginning September 2019 and ending August 2022. Projects may not exceed 36 months in duration. Requests may be made for any amount – there is no lower or upper limit, but we expect grants to average $500,000 to $2,500,000. 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. The program is open to applicants around the world.

Both initial and full proposals (see below) will be evaluated according to the following criteria:
  • Fit between proposed research and the goals of Information as Fuel program

  • Intrinsic intellectual merit, scientific rigor and originality

  • Quality of proposed research, including conceptual clarity, novelty, timeliness, ambition, and methodology

  • 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, including the significance of the anticipated results for our understanding of basic concepts of reality.

  • Impact on the more general understanding of information and the role it plays in physical reality. For this reason a robust and closely-integrated theoretical component is crucial, and a strong proposal will also involve a component of philosophy or philosophy of science.

Acceptable uses of grant funds include:
  • Experimental equipment

  • Student or postdoctoral salary and benefits

  • Summer salary and teaching buyout for academics

  • Support for specific projects during sabbaticals

  • Allowance for justifiable computers, publication charges, and other supplies (please see FAQ)

  • Costs for travel, visitor hosting, or small workshops, especially for collaboration within and between groups funded by the program.

  • Modest travel allowance

  • Overhead policy: Institutional overhead or indirect costs cannot exceed 15% of the grant’s direct costs. The organization hosting the grant must be prepared to cover any overhead or indirect costs that exceed 15% of direct costs.

  • Travel expenses policy: travel expenses cannot exceed 10% of total project cost.

  • To aid prospective applicants in determining whether a project is appropriate for this program, we have provided topics that make suitable targets for research funded under this program on the Examples page.


Applications will be accepted electronically through a standard form on our website (click here for application). The process is as follows:

Initial Proposal
Open to submissions from all interested candidates: February 4, 2019
Deadline: March 31, 2019
  • A 750 - 1000 word summary of the project, explicitly addressing:

    • The scientific case and impact

    • Relevance to the IaF program

    • Motivation by and relevance for our understanding of information theory, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, quantum theory, computation, and their links, as described in the program description above.

  • A (very approximate) 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 senior team member. We expect each team to contain at least one experimentalist PI and one theorist Co-I. The experimentalist PI must be tenure-track faculty or independent fellowship level, at an academic or other research institution. The theoretical effort may include but is not required to include philosophy of physics or other disciplines that would aid in connecting the work to a wider intellectual context. PIs 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 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 April 2019, likely 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.

FQXi does not provide feedback on proposal that are turned down in this initial round.

Full Proposal
Open by invitation only.
Deadline: June 18, 2019
  • Contact info for the person administering your grant (e.g., your institute’s grant specialist)

  • 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(s).

    • The scientific case including motivation for the experiment(s) and a discussion of the expected impact if successful.

    • Proposed experimental details.

    • An execution plan, with concrete, demonstrable milestone. These will form the basis for a grant agreement detailing the conditions under which grant installments will be made.

    • A collaboration plan: the proposal should detail how the collaboration will coordinate (if not at the same institution) internally, and requests for funds to cover meetings and travel are both expected and encouraged.

    • A coordination proposal: each project should contain a proposal for an event or other activity that will help communicate and collaborate across the projects that will make up this RFP. This might include collaborative workshops, a custom online information sharing or collaborative system, a “rotating postdoc” system, etc. FQXi will coordinate with and among the PIs to refine and develop these activities into an overall effort aimed at maintaining collaborative synergies between the projects and developing some overarching outputs of the Information as Fuel program as a whole. It will be especially important for the theoretical and philosophical components of projects to be closely involved in this activity. It is expected that the proposal will include funding of up to $30,000 for this purpose.

    • An engagement plan that describes 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).

  • Overhead policy: Institutional overhead or indirect costs cannot exceed 15% of the grant’s direct costs. The organization hosting the grant must be prepared to cover any overhead or indirect costs that exceed 15% of direct costs.

  • Travel expenses policy: travel expenses cannot exceed 10% of total project cost.

  • 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)

  • Names of 3 recommended referees

  • Curricula Vitae for all project senior personnel, including:

    • Education and employment history

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

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 before the first week of September 2019.


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. In addition to detailed reporting, it is expected that oversight of these grants will entail one or more site visits by FQXi personnel.


This RFP is sponsored by the following organizations:
  • Foundational Questions Institute
  • Templeton World Charity Foundation  
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