• Deputy head of the Cometence Center "Emerging Technologies" at Fraunhofer Institute Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe, Germany

    Bernd Beckert

The Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research funding programme delivers results above expectations – and researchers appreciate it because it allows for a special mode of research.

The “Visionary and collaborative research in Europe” study, carried out by Fraunhofer ISI and the Austrian Institute of Technology as part of the "FET_Traces" project, has analysed the impacts of the programme.

Impacts of the FET programme

The Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research programme occupies an intermediate position between the European Research Council (ERC), which is oriented towards basic research, and the Horizon 2020 programme, which mainly supports research that is likely to have practical applications in the real world. The objective of FET is to develop radically new knowledge-based technologies in Europe-wide, multidisciplinary research teams.

In the FET_Traces project we analysed 224 projects funded by the FET Open and FET Proactive (two strands in the FET programme) schemes that were completed between 2007 and 2014. We carried out a comprehensive bibliometric and citation pattern analysis. Via a survey and via personal interviews we asked project coordinators and participants about the impacts and effects of their FET research. The image above shows the impact dimensions for the assessment.

In almost all impact dimensions, we found evidence for relevant and in some cases extraordinary impacts. Of course, not all FET projects were successful, as this is the nature of high-risk research. But those which were successful had tremendous impacts, especially in the areas of knowledge production and the economy.

Using a specific bibliometric method, we found that the overwhelming majority of FET projects in our sample dealt with “radically” new research ideas. The result of this "novelty analysis" investigation shows that the goal of the FET programme, which is to support research that is not oriented towards mainstream topics, is clearly being accomplished.

In the citation analysis we found that 19% of FET projects have published research results in journal articles with an exceptionally high academic impact, meaning that they were cited by more than 50 other publications. As a comparison, projects funded within the ICT research section of FP7, the EU research funding programme that preceded Horizon 2020, achieved a much lower score: only 13% of projects received more than 10 citations (see the 2016 impact assessment report by UNU-MERIT and Maastricht University, p. 44).

Concerning impacts on the economy, we found that the FET projects in our sample achieved very high values in all key performance indicators commonly used in impact assessments. One of the reasons for this is that the researchers involved are not only excellent in their research fields but consider themselves as “problem-solvers” for real-life problems, thus applying their knowledge to develop new tools or devices.

Why researchers appreciate the FET programme

The FET programme is a unique research funding programme as it supports a mode of research that falls between basic and applied research, and can be called “use-inspired basic research”.

When FET researchers were asked about the programme, they said that one of the things they liked most about it is that it allows them to follow new research ideas which may ultimately lead to new solutions, tools or devices, and that it gives them the opportunity to try out new things and experiment with different approaches. According to FET researchers, the programme also gives them the freedom to pursue unexpected developments when they occur. This is contrasting with other European as well as national funding programmes which tend to be more formalised.

Furthermore, the FET researchers appreciate the opportunity to cooperate with researchers from different disciplines, backgrounds and countries. The participants of our survey said that national programmes are not equally able to build up new scientific communities as FET does. Nor can this be achieved by supporting individual researchers instead of research groups, as the ERC does.

In the light of the many positive impacts of the FET programme, we concluded that the current oversubscription of the programme is sending the wrong signal. In 2014, when Horizon 2020 began, a mere 3% of proposals submitted to FET Open or FET Proactive were funded. In other Horizon 2020 programmes, the equivalent figure was around 10%. Although there are signs that more projects will be funded in future calls, the low acceptance rate clearly discourages excellent researchers from submitting new proposals to FET. Thus, our recommendation to the Commission is to substantially increase the budget of the FET programme and to position FET more prominently in the European research funding landscape.

The final report as well as the success stories can be found on our website.