I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation, mostly because the new NIH guidelines dictate this category be given its own section in my K grant proposal. (I believe this is also new for other NIH grant mechanisms?) As straightforward as this word may seem on the surface, however, I’ve gotten quite hung up on how to approach it in my resubmission. My main two questions: 1) what qualifies as innovation? and 2) is too much innovation a bad thing?

First, a definition from Merriam Webster:

1 : the introduction of something new
2 : a new idea, method, or device : novelty

While these two definitions appear similar, what qualifies as innovation heavily depends upon which one is applied. If it’s the first, then just about any scientific proposal could qualify as innovative. So long as you’re not conducting “me too” experiments that somebody else has already done in a slightly different organism/cell line/animal model – but even this could possibly qualify as innovative under the first definition. If the experiment hasn’t been done before, then it’s new, and therefore innovative – right?

But I’m guessing NIH – *ahem* – the grant reviewers are probably working from definition #2, which would require some originality on the part of the applicant – developing a new methodology, or describing a novel scientific phenomenon. But what about a new way of thinking about a biological process? This is where I get stuck…is a novel scientific idea really considered innovative to [most] grant reviewers? Since this type of innovation may not always come across as clearly as a grant-writer wants, especially with the newly-condensed format, the innovation section seems [to me] to be a vital part of the new proposal format. But will a reviewer buy a thought process packaged and sold as “innovation”?

Another couple of innovation questions I’d like my readers to comment on:

Is innovation a must? Can a proposal have merit without this factor being particularly dominant? Or do you have to test by a novel method, using a new device, and based on a new way of scientific thinking for a proposal to be favorably judged?

What’s more, is there such a thing as too much innovation? It seems NIH likes a sure thing in their proposals, so can too much “novelty” be considered risky?


3 thoughts on “Innovation

  1. Here's my interpretation: In the context of most Centers and grant types, it is the question that should be innovative. Unless you are developing a technology, in which case that needs to be innovative. So if you are using standard techniques and studying an established area, you need to make sure you are asking a new question that has not been asked before, or that hasn't been asked *in the right way* before, because then your way of asking it is where the innovation lies.

  2. I am still learning about grant-writing myself, so keep that in mind when you read my comment. 🙂
    I think which type of innovation would depend on the type of science you are involved in. For me and my brand of science, I think innovation would be either (1) an innovative idea or question or (2) an innovative technique or method to answer a not-so-novel, yet important question that hasn't been adequately answered to date. I think a good example of the 2nd option in the microbiology field is the continued hunt for new virulence factors in an organism such as S. aureus. Ideally though, new said technique should be applicable to other pathogenic bacteria.

  3. Thanks for the input guys! I like the idea of asking an old question in a “new way”. I feel like my project is a mixture of an unasked question with a question that hasn't been addressed appropriately. But it seems so difficult to get those ideas across on paper right now. I'm hoping this will get easier next month once I've re-worked the grant!

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