Lessons learnt from the first H2020 FET-Open call
FET-Open funds joint international science and technology at an early stage to foster radically new technological possibilities. The programme aims at research that goes beyond what is currently known or even imagined. Therefore, it does not prescribe any research themes, is open to all sciences and disciplines and encourages unconventional collaborations. A rigorous bottom-up selection process is in place to establish a diverse portfolio of projects.
I recently spoke to a person who received funding through the FET-Open programme who compared the application process to a race in the Olympics. It might sound curious, but it is actually not far from the truth. What are the odds that a child who can run quickly, who is maybe even training in track and field, actually ends up competing at the Olympics one day? The chances are probably very low, yet it's not impossible if you add the right preparation, training and gear to the initial talent. Much the same can be said for FET-Open.
From a great pool of potential competitors for funding in Research and Innovation Actions, only very few can be considered for funding in the end. Out of 800 eligible proposals at the last deadline in September 2015, more than half (454) lacked the quality necessary for the FET programme, leaving another 346 out of which we currently have 11 proposals in grant preparation. This means only 1.4% of all those applicants with potentially great scientific ideas will have been successful in the end.
In FET-Open there is no single winner but rather a number of runners-up, depending on the available budget. For the current FET-Open call, the budget has more than doubled compared to the last call. Since the budget will be topped up even more in the future, the number of runners-up or successful proposals will also go up. However, given the continuous great interest in the programme, competition will always be fierce. Since FET-Open is totally non-prescriptive when it comes to topics or disciplines, it attracts a lot more potential applicants than other programmes. In addition to that, the number of applicants who submit their failed proposals again rises from call deadline to call deadline.
Who will be runners-up?
Or, in other words, which proposals will after a rigorous evaluation process, make it to the top and be retained for funding? The answer is simple: only the excellent proposals have a chance. Make no mistake, this race is no lottery. Like at the Olympic marathon, you will find that the best prepared ones will take the podium places.
To get there, applicants need to make sure to pass all the gatekeepers of the FET workprogramme:
- Long-term vision
If your research doesn't reach far beyond the immediate future, it's not FET-Open material.
- Breakthrough scientific and technological target
If your research idea does not contain a clearly identified breakthrough or is blue-sky, it's not FET-Open material.
If your proposal tackles the next logical step of an already existing concept or proposes a continuation of a previous project, it's not FET-Open material.
If it doesn't envisage a new line of investigation leading to a new technology, currently not anticipated, it's not FET-Open material.
If your research methods are not adapted to explore unknown territory with potential high risk but also high gain, it's not FET-Open material.
If you team up only with collaborators from neighbouring disciplines or engage in established collaboration patterns, it's not FET-Open material.
Yet, having all of the above is not enough. Candidates for the final race will also have to pay particular attention to impact and be able to explain how their idea could transform technology or society and how new high-potential actors, both in the academic and in the business world will be involved. Similarly, the score for implementation needs to be high in order to succeed in FET-Open. Applicants should have a clear and convincing idea of how they will go about their project and who they will involve for the best possible results.
What it takes
Preparing for the Olympics takes time, dedication and focus. You don't go there if you are not serious about it. Drafting a FET-Open proposal likewise takes time, it takes research and resources. Advice and guidance is easily available from National Contact Points who are able to point out if your scientific idea fits into the FET-programme and assess if your draft is clearly written to have a chance in FET. With the next submission deadline in May for the current FET-Open call fast approaching I cannot stress enough that excellence all around, be it content, form, or presentation, is necessary to succeed in FET-Open.