The new NIH grant format includes a specific section titled “innovation,” and many are scratching their heads over what to put there.

The reason that NIH did this is because they’ve been slammed by critics in the past for not funding enough truly innovative science.  The NIH review process is known for its conservatism.

So, in comes the new format, with a new sub-section titled “innovation” (Sandwiched between its siblings Significance and Approach).

What is innovative?  Post your comment here with your own answer, so that we can get a good discussion going.

On our recent teleconference, I asked Marshall Edgell this question.  He’s one of the smartest guys I know when it comes to this stuff.  I’ll get to his answer in a minute. (Reminder, if you want to hear the whole recording, which is excellent, keep an eye out for the online course.  Or, post about your greatest grant writing challenge, and win a free entry into the course.)

Here’s my answer: innovation is not just “novelty”.

I’ve had hundreds of “novel” ideas in my life.  In most cases, I wasn’t in the right place/time to implement them, and within a year or two of my own “novel” idea, someone else came up with a very similar idea and implemented it.  If you look at the history of scientific revolutions, most “discoveries” attributed to a single person often had other people around the world coming up with similar ideas at about the same time.

In this highly connected internet age, this is truer now than ever.  The rapid flow of information gets people into similar thought patterns, so that they are more likely to come up with similar (or identical) ideas simultaneously.

If you do something that’s been done 100 times before, you can’t call it innovative.

But on the flip side, just because you come up with something “new” or “novel”, you can’t necessarily call it innovative, either.

Innovation implies not only newness, but a sense of unique utility.  Here’s an example:

Drinking water borne disease in Africa is a huge problem, killing many thousands every year.  Traditional approaches to dealing with this have included development and distribution of antibiotics and vaccines, and implementation of sanitized water systems.  But both solutions have been problematic because the infrastructure doesn’t exist for maintaining and distributing a drug supply, nor are there adequate resources to maintain proper large scale water sanitation.

In comes the Lifestraw, a “water purifier straw”. This straw has a built in sanitizing water filter, and is light and small enough that it can be carried with the person wherever they go.

Straws have been around for a long time.  I’ve used water filters on backpacking trips since I was a child to get rid of bugs like Giardia.  None of the ideas within the LifeStraw are truly new or “novel”.

But combining these old ideas and applying them to solve a pressing problem is innovative.  An innovative grant proposal will do the same thing: propose to solve a problem in new ways.

Now, back to what Marshall said in the interview.  The core of what he said is: a lot of science is not innovative, even though it is useful.  Don’t try to pretend that your science is innovative when it isn’t.  Reviewers will see right through that.  Do what you can to bring new ways of solving problems, but don’t pretend it is something that it is not.

5 thoughts

  1. If there’s a sub-section entitled “innovation” (sandwiched between Significance and Approach), applicants are going to spin something to fill in there; everyone knows the game and it will be considered unacceptable to leave it blank. That doesn’t make it innovative. If NIH is looking for ideas that nobody else around the world is coming up with (or something similar) around the same time, then most Nobel prize winning work won’t qualify either — not relativity, not natural selection, not quantum mechanics, not DNA structure! All of these truly innovative ideas (in my book) have occurred to multiple people with slight variations around the same time.

  2. The straw example is not innovative. Its just an invention. It is not something that will lead to a new avenue of research. Once its invented. End of story. The NIH is still risk adverse. They say they want innovation. But its misleading. They seem to only fund projects with low risk. I would never submit an truly innovative proposal to the NIH. The pink sheet will say. Simply “it may not work” Or some other equally useless comment. Most reviewers are cowards and seem to enjoy shooting down innovative ideas for several reasons that don’t have to do with the science. Don’t give them what you read the announcement. Look at pedestrian stuff that is actually funded and give them more of the same BS. Tell the same stories and get funded. If you try to tell a different story the reviewers will not get on board. No matter how novel and cool or true it is. The reviewers know what they know (not much) and don’t want to hear anything different.
    Good Luck!

    1. I agree with you that NIH can be too conservative. But that’s the system we work in. My goal is to help people work in it optimally. While I’d love to change the system, change is slow.
      I do think the straw is innovative. If innovation isn’t “inventing new things” then what is it?
      Good luck to you as well…

  3. Innovative ideas advance their respective fields. I would say the lifestraw advanced the field of preventative health care technology. What may be a challenge to grant applicants is communicating significance and innovation with greater constraints on word limit.

  4. Innovation has a very precise definition in the business word, which I think is applicable here: Innovation is creating or capturing value from new ideas or inventions. It is distinct from ideation (coming up with new ideas) and invention (turning new ideas into products or services). Innovation is the process of implementing or executing inventions in a way that users (customers, research subjects, funders) will value and pay for.

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