This paper aims to show drivers of evolution in the European research geography arguing that this mainly depends on economic and scientific preconditions rather than on scientific (‘smart’) specialization. The analysis uses an innovative and very detailed database at the level of European districts (NUTS3); moreover, six different FP themes are combined and compared from 1999 to 2010. Findings show the importance of economic growth and scientific diversification as main drivers for the attraction of FP projects. Combining this analysis with the EU Cohesion Policy, scientific specialisation seems having a positive effect for Objective-1 regions, but only in selected FP themes. These findings highlight under which conditions the FP policy can be used to promote territorial development through scientific (‘smart’) specialization.