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Digital Economy & Society

What it takes to succeed in FET-Open

FET-Open is an extremely popular programme. The number of applications has been continuously rising since the previously ICT-centered programme was opened to all disciplines in 2014 within the Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation programme. Now that all the proposals from the first truly open FET-Open call 2014/2015 have been evaluated, it is time to take stock.

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.

  • Novelty

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.

  • Foundational

If it doesn't envisage a new line of investigation leading to a new technology, currently not anticipated, it's not FET-Open material.

  • High-risk

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.

  • Interdisciplinarity

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.

Find out more about the FET-spirit.

Timo Hallantie's picture
Published in DSM blog


Florentin Woergoetter's picture

I am a member of several research panels and had also participated in FET Open (and we even had won 2 of them in FP6, where the situation had been far better than now). I find that the current situation with 1.4% funded proposals is quite inacceptable. My experience from panel work where I get to see a few hundred proposals per year tells me that anything below 10% funding rate leads to completely random decisions. The reason is quite mathematical. At the flat tail of the distribution, where the "good proposals" are, differences between them are minuscule and its just the opinion of the reviewer that counts. Hence, there are absolutely no objective decision criteria existing anymore, which makes this much different from the Olympics, where there are objectively measurable time-differences in a 100m sprint or else.

The FET Open scheme has completely outlived its usefulness and must be abandoned as soon as possible and replaced by more targetted calls. Or the Commission needs to push so much money in there that we get above the 10% margin and leave the random range.

Best wishes, F. Wörgötter

Stefan Hans's picture

Hi Florentin,

I've no experience with FET Open and probably won't have. But I've made similar experiences within big companies.

"FET Open supports a bottom-up approach for exploring novel and visionary ideas." sounds good but IMO it would be much better to support the motivated and creative people helping them in a more venture capital way. Agree a milestone and support to reach it. If they fail, but remain motivated and creative, it was a good project and a step forward.

The failure is your friend - doing what you don't like is your enemy (business plans and other bureaucracy).

Greetings Stefan

P.S. To assess possible disruptive innovation in the long term is an illusion. But to give space for creativity and failure is likely always the right thing.

homo ludens :-)

Oliver Panzer's picture

Dear Timo,

The comparison with the Olympics sure hits the mark. As the Olympics have inspired the greatest athletes, so the spirit of FET Open has inspired the most creative researchers. Many of them will be left dispirited by the results of the last evaluation. Funding only 11 projects out of almost 350 ‘worthy’ proposals simply falls short of being an excellent programme:

The high aims of FET are renowned and applicants know exactly that the success rates are usually below 10%. They are convinced to meet the requirements and they do invest a large extra-amount of effort and love to have a chance for success.  While the very clear advice that you offer in your blog will be good guidance for those who failed to meet the threshold, it may offer little to those who find themselves among the best 5% and still a long shot from being funded. In the long run, FET Open might cease to attract people who have little difficulties to get funding elsewhere.

The evaluation-quality of FET Open has an excellent reputation. Nevertheless, at a success rate of well below 2% even the slightest imbalance among the panels and even the slightest oversight makes a grave difference. Even the most careful governance and the most careful selection of evaluators cannot overcome the inherent unfairness of selecting too few applicants by a procedure that still involves the human factor.

A most attractive feature of FET Open is to neither prescribe a topic nor the composition of the team. The call for breakthrough concepts with a clear vision for long-term impact is very appealing for exactly the kind of inventor who is capable to deliver such. Unfortunately, some applicants received feedback on their proposals along the lines that their team lacks an SME to ‘push results towards market realization’, others got praise simply for involving SMEs, and others received no comments in this regard. The crude simplification SME=future technological leadership is unworthy of a FET panel, it might lead to fig-leave involvement of SMEs in future proposals, and not giving equal merit to SME involvement in all proposals reduces the transparency and fairness of selection. 

The research community anticipated the opening of FET Open beyond ICT greatly. There is a lot of love for the spirit and the principles of this programme, in particularly amongst the most brilliant researchers. Please support a more meaningful number of projects to continue attracting excellent ideas, to remain fair, and to make actual long-term impact.

Sincerely, Oliver