Storke sunrise. Credit: Eric Isaacs
Credit: Eric Isaacs

 The Foundations Institute

The Foundations Institute (TFI) is a vibrant community of scholars working together to challenge conventional thinking across the scientific and intellectual disciplines. The goal of the TFI is to speed up scientific progress by intensively seeking out and re-evaluating the often decades-old foundational ideas, assumptions, methods and models on which day-to-day scientific work is built.

 The Problem

The scientific method is the greatest solvent of dogma the world has ever known. Its genius is that it institutionalizes and incentivizes fierce competition between ideas and is built on methods for mercilessly discarding ideas that have outlived their usefulness. But the powerful lens of the scientific method is too infrequently turned on the really foundational ideas, methods, models and assumption on which scientific work is based. This is because the institutions of science – granting agencies, journals and university departments – are rarely centered around questioning and re-examining foundational ideas. Instead, they are focused on the process of making new discoveries. This is all to the good, but it creates spaces in scientific disciplines in which foundational ideas can sit, unperturbed, sometimes for decades and can even sometimes harden into dogma. This needlessly slows science down.

There is a missing institutional layer in the ecosystem of science – one focused specifically and specially on applying the scientific process to the foundational ideas, methods and models of the disciplines. The TFI’s aim is to fill this gap.

 Our Mission

The mission of the Institute is to actively search out stale foundational ideas across the sciences and, in each case, organize a series of intensive re-examinations, conducted by small groups of the very top minds in the field, unfolding over the course of several years. These meetings and research groups will be carefully engineered by the Institute to encourage a type of free, open dialogue focused on fundamentals that rarely occurs in the normal course of modern science. The Institute will support these discussions with a small team of scholars in residence at UC Santa Barbara and top science journalists from our board of advisors who will work to disseminate and amplify the developments from these meetings. We believe that this simple and economical process will speed (perhaps dramatically) the evolution of scientific ideas, providing scientists a new and important resource for doing their work.

Everyone sits in the prison of his own ideas. He must burst it open, in his youth and test his ideas on reality.

Albert Einstein (1931)

 Our Process

The TFI pursues this mission by following a two step process. First we actively look for the assumptions that have the greatest impact on scientific disciplines and that are ripest for critical re-evaluation. Next we organize top scholars to subject these assumptions to rigorous examination.

 Finding the Dogmas

We cultivate a network of scientists, science writers and other intellectuals to help us actively seek out under-questioned foundational ideas, methods, assumptions and models across the sciences. We also house TFI Scholars in residence, who spend 1-2 semesters at the Institute thinking and writing about central tenets or methodologies in their discipline and which of these are most in need of investigation. Finally, we make regular calls for proposals to the scientific community and rely on the broader intellectual community for ideas and perspectives. Most working scientists can readily point to weak points and shibboleths in their disciplines. If you have identified a foundation in need of examination, we hope you will get in touch with us and get involved.

 Examining the Foundation

Next, we assemble top scholars in the discipline to meet and debate the foundational idea or assumption we've identified. Early in the process, we organize small symposia consisting of 8-10 scientists and scholars for 3-5 days of intensive discussion. Later, we organize workshops in which scholars formally present papers exploring new approaches to the foundation, often spurred by the early symposia. Finally, we host bootcamps to help scientists disseminate these new ideas to a wider community of graduate students and junior practitioners.

What makes our events distinctive is that we put a particular emphasis on encouraging participants to speak freely, shielded from norms and reputational concerns that sometimes hold back discussion especially on closely held, foundational assumptions and ideas. To encourage this freedom, our projects are initiated anonymously and our events are governed by the Chatham House Rule:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

We believe closed meetings and anonymity produce unusually fertile and open discussions, maximizing the likelihood our meetings will identify ideas that have truly outlived their usefulness and will find creative, productive ways forward for the field.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman (1974)


North America

  •  Michael Gazzaniga, UC Santa Barbara
  •  Juna Kollmeier, University of Toronto, OCIS
  •  Spencer LaVere Smith, UC Santa Barbara
  •  Denise Montell, UC Santa Barbara
  •  Ryan Oprea, UC Santa Barbara
  •  Bridget Queenan, Harvard University



  •  David Poeppel, Ernst Strungmann Institute, NYU, Max Planck
  •  Peter Hagoort, Max Planck
  •  Ulman Lindenberger, Max Planck
  •  Erin Schuman, Max Planck

 Scientific Advisory Board

  •  Elizabeth Blackburn, UCSF
  •  Karl Deisseroth, Stanford University
  •  Brian Greene, Columbia University
  •  Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University
  •  Steven Pinker, Harvard University

 Scientific Writers

  •  Anil Ananthaswamy
  •  Ben Carey
  •  Amanda Gefter
  •  Steven Johnson
  •  Carl Zimmer