Innovation in NIH grants

Innovation and significance often get confused, not just in the writer’s eyes, but sometimes in the reviewers. That makes it doubly important to be clear about when you are indicating both of these concepts. A class I took defined significance as the positive effect your work will have on other things. It defined innovation as a substantially different way of considering or testing the problem you address. [I apologize that these are old handwritten notes, and that I cannot give proper attribution to them. I have taken many grant courses in my life, and regret none of the time I have spent on them].

Why is innovation a separate section? Back in the Olden Dayes, NIH was criticized for being too conservative. Their response, of course, is to institutionalize innovation, without necessarily appreciating the irony of their actions.

Here are NIH instructions about Innovation to grant writers (these are general instructions, download the 398 instructions, search for innovation):

(b) Innovation

•         Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms.

•         Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).

•         Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.

Here are the NIH instructions to reviewers about innovation:

Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions?

Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense?

Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?

So the tricky part is that innovation does not mean “new”. You can take a bunch of old ideas, techniques and apply them to a different problem (that itself is not new) and that becomes innovative. The best definition (from my notes, from some speaker/class I took at MRU) I’ve heard is: an innovative proposal solves a problem in a way that has not been done.

Two additional points: (1) New is not necessarily innovative. Just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it will change an existing paradigm. (2) ESI and NI (young) investigators need to be extra careful about innovation. Presenting yourself as “outside the mainstream” can be dangerous, because it may raise questions that you either don’t understand the mainstream, or that you can’t do the work.

ALWAYS: demonstrate or document feasibility and credibility. Can you do the work you propose.

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2 thoughts on “Innovation in NIH grants

  1. Pingback: Triaged Grants (and a Passover Lesson) | Mistress of the Animals

  2. Late to the party but appreciating your advice.

    “You can take a bunch of old ideas, techniques and apply them to a different problem (that itself is not new) and that becomes innovative. The best definition (from my notes, from some speaker/class I took at MRU) I’ve heard is: an innovative proposal solves a problem in a way that has not been done.”

    I tried this for my NIH New Innovator Award–applying inference methods used on genetic regulatory networks to understand dynamics on a MUCH larger scale–and was dinged for simply recycling preexisting approaches. I thought I’d made it clear this was a really new way of tackling these large-scale problems. My suspicion was that I just didn’t explain the research in a sufficiently zippy and sparkly way.

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