FET Open accounts for 40 per cent of the €2.696 billion budget allocated to the Future and Emerging Technologies programme, but 60 per cent of applications to date failed to pass the quality threshold, and the overall success rate since the start of Horizon 2020 is only four per cent, Thierry Van der Pyl, director of the Excellence in Science unit at DG Connect, told the Science|Business Horizon 2020 conference.
FET Open is intended as light, topic-agnostic and deadline-free scheme, which is open and continuously responsive to novel and fragile ideas that challenge current thinking, whenever they arise and wherever they come from. Ironically, it is the programme’s non-prescriptive character that leads so many applicants to submit below par proposals, Van der Pyl said.
“We have tried to solve the problem by being more prescriptive, but 60 per cent of the proposals were still below the quality threshold,” said Van der Pyl. “It is important to understand the pattern of failure,” he added.
The success of the FET depends on the robustness of the evaluation system and on the quality of the experts. “We are learning from our colleagues at the European Research Council new ways to improve our evaluation process,” said Van der Pyl. “We are learning from each other. These elements allow us to detect the quality of the proposals.”
FET is a multidisciplinary programme positioned at the interplay between science and technology. The main focus of the scheme is to fund interdisciplinary research projects on emerging future key technologies. “The objective is to do purpose-driven research not blue sky research,” said Van der Pyl.
However, FET cannot deliver the required impact if the mind set of researchers is stuck in a grant-seeking framework. Van der Pyl argued that, “The right mind set is to be ready to take the results and transfer them to the market as soon as possible.” And that is what the FET actions are all about: turning Europe's excellent science into a competitive advantage.
The proposals for FET Open submitted to date come from a broad range of scientific disciplines. This is “good news” said Van der Pyl.
But, the four per cent success rate is a big problem.
A perhaps bigger problem is the geographical skew of the successful proposals. “Ninety seven per cent of the successful proposals come from EU15,” said Van der Pyl. The low performance of EU13 and of Horizon 2020-associated countries generates a powerful geographical contrast. “This is a problem we know about and we need to do something about it,” said Van der Pyl.
The causes are many. Van der Pyl said the Commission, “Needs to work with the other parts of Horizon 2020 in order to stimulate EU 13 countries to be much more active.”
In order to be eligible, FET Open proposals have to be less than 16 pages long, which makes the entry ticket relatively low. “Sixteen pages is not an enormous investment if you know what you want to do,” said Van der Pyl. However, this does not do much to even out the geographical imbalance.
The FET Proactive funds are allocated to emerging themes with the potential to establish a critical mass of European researchers in a number of promising exploratory research topics. The goal is to “Identify themes that could be the research basis of future emerging technologies,” said Van der Pyl.
Unlike FET Open, these funds are allocated to specific research areas. “Here things are more prescriptive in the sense that we don’t tell researchers how to solve problems, but we prescribe the research areas,” Van der Pyl said.
Unfortunately, the FET Proactive scheme is not doing much better in terms of success rates and geographical distribution. Under Horizon 2020, the success rate has been so far only seven per cent while 91 per cent of the successful projects are in the EU15 countries.
This is a 10-year long initiative that encourages hundreds of European researchers to work together on ambitious scientific and technological challenge, like understanding the brain or developing the new materials of the future, such as graphene.
“These are large projects, science driven and multidisciplinary, which give Europe a lot of global visibility,” said Van der Pyl. “We speak at the same level with China, Japan and the US in fields like genome research and graphene. This gives European research a global dimension,” he added.
However, FET will go through a comprehensive evaluation before it embarks on funding new flagships. “We need to evaluate the FET and see what works and what doesn’t,” said Van der Pyl. “This will be part of the mid-term evaluation of Horizon 2020.”