The Templeton-funded FQXI organization has announced today the awarding of 30 grants totalling more than $2 million dollars for foundational research in physics. On the one hand I’ve always been dubious about this organization since it is funded by a foundation dedicated not to scientific research but to bringing science and religion together. On the other hand, given the sad state of some of current theoretical physics research, the idea of an organization with a different perspective coming in with new funding and the ability to encourage new ideas that are not getting attention seems highly promising.
The proposal summaries for the successful grants are often so vague that it’s hard to tell what they are actually about, although presumably the full proposals give much more detail. FQXI seems to have succeeded in keeping the Templeton religious agenda at bay, with none of the grants trying to bring religion into science. But I have to confess I find the list of grants rather discouraging. FQXI will be funding several well-known string theorists, a group that has not exactly been starved of funding or attention in recent years. Some of the grants are for “multiverse” research, again something that I don’t think physics desperately needs more of right now.
Almost completely missing from the list of topics awarded grants is high energy physics, or any foundational research into the standard model. Also very hard to find is any interest in further research into the new mathematical ideas that have come out of quantum field theory research during the last thirty years. In brief, what seems to me the most promising way forward for foundational research in physics, working on better understanding the standard model QFT and its mathematical context, doesn’t seem to be something on the FQXI agenda. To be fair, I have the depressing suspicion that if I had to go through all the grant proposals submitted to them, I might not have been able to do much better in terms of coming up with promising things to fund.
Last week an interesting semester-long program on Non-commutative Geometry began at the Newton Institute in Cambridge, and some of the talks have already begon to appear on this web-site. The program will include a Templeton-sponsored workshop in early September on the topic of Fundamental Structures of Space and Time. Like FQXI, the workshop mostly seems to be free of religious influence, although there will be a public panel discussion on The Nature of Space and Time which will feature two clergymen.
Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll, who is at least as dubious about Templeton as I am, has a much more positive take on the FQXI grants. In the comment section FQXI associate director Anthony Aguirre points to a new mission statement at Templeton. At their web-site you can also watch a rather long video about this if you’re so inclined, or see a list of upcoming conferences they sponsor on topics in science and religion (they’re especially interested in cosmology).
Update: There’s a story about this at Inside Higher Ed.