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Consciousness in the Physical World
An International Request for Proposals

Full Application Deadline: May 28, 2020


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.

FQXi offers grants that serve a three-fold purpose:

  • To encourage and support rigorous, innovative, and influential scientific research and collaborations on foundational scientific questions, 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.

The mission of the Fetzer Franklin Fund (FFF) is to explore the frontiers of scientific knowledge and to advance breakthroughs towards scientific views of reality that are integrated and relational. In conducting its program of open exploration, the Fetzer Franklin Fund focuses on foundational questions at the frontiers of physics, biology, and consciousness research. In addition, the Fund supports work that re-examines the foundations of science, including scientific methodologies for both conventional and frontier research.

This program builds upon FQXi and FFF’s past programs on Agency in the Physical World and Intelligence in the Physical World. This RFP is a partnership between FFF and FQXi, and administered by FQXi.


The current request for proposals targets research on Consciousness in the Physical World, in fields including physics, cosmology, astrophysics, philosophy of science, complex systems, biophysics, cognitive science, neuroscience, computer science, and mathematics. Consciousness in the Physical World seeks to inspire investigations into the many connections between basic physical laws and the nature of consciousness and conscious agents.

The nature of consciousness is an old, old question. But like intelligence and agency, the physical sciences have provided a dramatic new set of tools in recent decades, and the time is ripe to explore what insights into consciousness may be gained by a concerted effort by top researchers using these tools.

The research program will address questions such as (more detail is provided on the Examples page):
  • How do we most usefully break down consciousness into components aspects or capabilities, and relate these to the physical world and the possibilities and constraints it entails?

  • Is there a theoretical — and preferably mathematical — framework that can in principle determine which physical systems will be associated with consciousness and which will not? (The “pretty hard problem” of consciousness.)

  • What — exactly, and with as much rigor as possible — is the connection between quantum mechanics and consciousness?

  • What are the roles of indexical information, which is information connected with the particular subjective viewpoint of the universe an agent has, in cosmology and fundamental physics?

  • What are the necessary, and what are the contingent, links between consciousness and other mental qualities/processes such as choice and agency, intelligence, feelings and emotions, moral weight, “free will” and responsibility, etc.? 

  • How do we best study consciousness in humans, using the most current and sophisticated tools or self-report and analysis?

  • How do we study consciousness outside of humans, where we cannot rely on direct reports?


In this competition, grants totaling about $1.8M will be available to researchers in academic and other non-profit institutions for projects up to two years in duration, with an end date of August 31, 2022. 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 relevant fields such as physics, philosophy, biophysics, neuroscience, information and complexity theory, computer science, etc. Research should bear upon the theme Consciousness in the Physical World, as described more fully above and on the Examples page. It is important to note the “foundational” and “unconventional” criteria below, and that this program is unlikely to fund projects that have implications purely for neuroscience or purely for machine learning or purely for theoretical computer science, etc., as opposed to projects connecting those fields to other disciplines and broader scientific issues in a central way that makes the project suitable to this RFP and the spirit of FQXi rather than a conventional funding source.

    • 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 this program will generally not be a good candidate for funding by the NSF, NIH, 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 and FFF missions, 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. (Applicants will be required to list the sources of other funding, secured or proposed, needed for these positions. This information will be requested for those who are invited to submit a full proposal.)
  • 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 we are 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 Policy: Overhead of at most 15%. 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.

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. Applicants can also review projects supported in FQXi - FFF’s previous RFPs on Agency in the Physical World and Intelligence in the Physical World.


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:


You can view the initial application information here.

2. FULL PROPOSALDUE May 28, 2020—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. The budget must include justification and utilization distribution (drafted by or reviewed 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; please see the overhead policy stated above)

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

    • Full publication list

  • For past FQXi awardees only: A 250-word statement explaining what was done with previous funding and how that relates 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 August 31, 2020.


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 based on these reviews, FQXi will send the DAF the funding recommendations. After SVCF has completed its due diligence on the grantee institutes and disbursed funds, FQXi will work with SVCF to monitor grantee performance via grant reports. In this way, researchers will continue to interact with FQXi, while SVCF mostly interacts with the institutes’ administrative or grants management offices.


This RFP is sponsored by the following organizations:
  • Foundational Questions Institute, PO Box 3655, Decatur, GA 30031, USA
  • Fetzer Franklin Fund, 1240 West VW Ave., Vicksburg, MI, 49097, USA

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    Note: Joining the FQXi mailing list does not give you a login account or constitute membership in the organization.