The NIH Significance and Innovation Sections, demystified

by morgan · 3 comments


One of the great things about working with some top scientists to hone their grant-getting skills is that I get to hear really good questions that they struggle with.

One question from a client was this:

“I am a bit confused about what goes in the Significance and the Innovation sections of my proposal, and how those are different from the Approach.”

In my grant writing classes like the Grant Dynamo, I teach the concept posing “problem-solution” pairs. These pairs always come together, and I often see failures in grants because people present solutions without problems, or problems without solutions.

All great grant proposals are framed around a series of problems, from the big to the more specific, along with a series of potential solutions, as yet unrealized… until you get the grant money to make those solutions move forward.

It sounds simple, and in theory it is. Yet it’s hard to do in practice – at least judging by the people I work with at top universities.

To answer this question, I’ll assume that you “get it” and are going to implement the problem-solution framework in your grant.

Once we have that framework, the answer to this question is simple:


  • The Significance section is about the problem(s) – 
    1. why are they important?
    2. whom do they impact?
    3. why is a solution currently missing?
    4. what have people tried? (be brief with this, don’t do a literature review)
    5. why is a solution needed now?
    6. what has happened that makes you think you and your team have a solution? (in broad terms – leave the specifics for later)
    7. in which aim will you solve which problem?
    8. why is your team qualified to solve the problem(s)?
  • The Innovation section is about the solution(s), but from the specific angle of “what’s new and different about your solution that makes it viable?” In other words:
    1. what advance has happened to make your solution potentially likely to work?
    2. what new enabling ideas or technologies does it use?
    3. what new approaches do you use?
    4. how are you combining existing approaches in a new way?
    5. what unique resources have you developed or have access to?

In the Innovation section we’re not trying to cover the entire solution. We are only discussing what’s new and useful about the solution(s) that are going to be offered in the Approach section. A mistake is to provide reams of detail here – save that for the Approach.

As always, you should use great sub-headers to break up the text, and compelling figures for both your Significance and Innovation sections to illustrate the problem(s) and the new solution(s).

Once you’ve got that covered, that leaves us with the Approach section. The Approach is more about your solution. In the Approach section you simply detail the “recipe” you’ll use to make the solution happen – along with evidence that shows you are competent to do it, and that it will likely work (i.e. preliminary data). I cover more on that elsewhere in the blog.

So, remember:

  • Significance = problem and
  • Innovation = what’s new about the solution


If you want more clarity on getting funded in our currently crazy environment, make sure to sign up for the Newsletter (that box on the upper right that says “grab my latest report”). I’ll send you helpful, free content like this to make your grants easier to write and more compelling, along with productivity and creativity boosters. I’ll also occasionally let you know when a new grant writing or productivity course is being offered.

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