The EU’s FET research program is working – and should be expanded


Fraunhofer ISI coordinated the “FET-Traces“ project, which analyzed the impacts of the EU’s “Future Emerging Technologies“ (FET) funding program. The program’s objective is to support excellent, interdisciplinary and application-oriented research. The results show that FET generates new knowledge and has positive effects on research, the economy and society. The main recommendation, therefore, is to take the program out of its niche and assign it more funding.

The European Commission’s research program “Future Emerging Technologies“ (FET) is situated between the “European Research Council“ (ERC), which is oriented more towards basic research, and the “Horizon2020“ (H2020) program, which is strongly based on applications. FET’s objective is to develop radically new knowledge-based technologies in Europe-wide, multidisciplinary research teams. The researchers should be given the greatest possible freedom to implement novel and unusual research ideas or ideas that are risky in a positive sense. So far, however, there is little information available about the concrete effects of FET funding on research, the economy and society in Europe.

To find out more about the effectiveness and benefits of the FET program, the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzed more than 200 FET projects together with the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT). Bibliometric research, an online survey and case studies were used to explore the scientific and technological outputs the projects have produced and the economic and social effects triggered by them. The focus was on the four areas of “knowledge“ (for example, the development of new research instruments, knowledge gains), the “economy“ (for example, start-ups, generating prosperity), “people“ (creating links between researchers in networks and strengthening their interdisciplinary and collaborative skills) and “society“ (for example, health benefits and quality of life).

FET-funded projects frequently develop radically new ideas

The research results show that FET-funded projects make major contributions to knowledge production – they are cited with above average frequency in high-profile publications like “Science“ and “Nature“. In addition, 36 percent of the funded projects were mentioned in more than 20 scientific disciplines – which means they have high interdisciplinary visibility. This is due to the large degree of novelty and the development of radically new ideas that characterize 83 percent of the analyzed FET projects.

Many of the analyzed FET projects also have high relevance for the economy and applications: At least one industrial enterprise is involved in 40 percent of the projects and there are direct links to companies in the majority (83 percent). The FET support resulted in founding a company start-up in about 12 percent of the projects, which is a remarkably high figure in an academic context.

Research with high societal importance

Alongside the knowledge and application dimensions, the impacts on society were also analyzed. This revealed that 17 percent of the researchers believe their funded projects are very relevant to society. The majority of researchers (88 percent) also stated that their scientific career had profited from the FET support. This also resulted in follow-up projects in almost nine of ten cases and to scientific awards in almost one third.

Dr. Bernd Beckert, who coordinated the “FET-Traces“ project at Fraunhofer ISI, summarizes the main findings: “The FET program is unique in the European research landscape because it supports knowledge gains, interdisciplinary cooperation and application orientation at the same time. However, the results also show that many researchers in Europe find it difficult to obtain FET funding. Therefore, our recommendation to the EU Commission is that they should not only continue the program but improve its position in the future – especially financially. This would contribute greatly to strengthening Europe as a leading location for research and innovation.“

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.