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I am applying for a research grant which specifies that the proposed research should be novel and innovative. However without previous experience, it is not clear what degree of novelty is required. For academic publications the requirement is generally that the presented results should be non-obvious (novel) and making a significant improvement in understanding about the topic. For this reason straightforward incremental advances are liable to be rejected.

When considering grants, is a similar degree of novelty required, or is it expected that the proposed research is a new departure from what has has been done before? By way of example, say you have done research on a certain sample to investigate physical property A, would a proposal to investigate physical property B qualify as novel?

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As a small note, some funding agencies provide information on what they've funded in the past, with some even making public the original grant proposals. It's generally worth checking if the agency (or a related agency in your field) make this available, as you can get a feel for the kind of thing they've been looking for in the past. Sometimes they are just words, and sometimes they really mean it, as in "something no one has ever even proposed or considered trying before". But it varies by agency. – BrianDHall Feb 7 '14 at 20:32
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The purpose of adding words like "novel" and "innovative" is to weed out proposals that may be poorly researched and thus copying others or or involve repeating other works in a slightly different setting (or equivalent). The phrasings makes rejecting proposals easier since it provides a critieria (one among many) against which it can be judged. Funding agencies are also keen to see their funding go to research that can be judged to contribute "significant" results.

My experience says that what constitutes "novel" and "innovative" is difficult to assess in detail. In my field, environmental/earth science, some themes become "fashionable" or hot and signals these aspects, or rather absence means less likelihood to receive funding. These themes include finite element modelling (70s), acid rain(70s/80s) and climate change (currently). This can be seen as a communal will or interest to steer research in certain ways and so showing you can significantly contribute to these goals was/is more or less necessary to provide you with a good chance for obtaining funding.

So to define "novel" and "innovative" will be difficult. And, as a side point, your research either is or is not "novel" or "innovative", there are no degrees. You need to come up with ideas that are truly new (testing new grounds) or which promise results that are significantly advancing science but more importantly, you need to convince the reviewers in the funding agency about your case. This means to avoid "more of the same" proposals, to be sure your idea has not been worked on before (know your field).

A book, I strongly recommend for all is

Friedland, A., Fold, C.L., 2009. Writing Successful Science Proposals, Second Edition. Yale Univ. Press

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Peter, I like your answer very much (I already upvote it). I do have a question, though. Is a proposal to negate the main stream results considered novel and innovative? – scaaahu Jan 26 '14 at 9:01
Objectively, yes definitely if you can show the necessary support for why such a hypothesis is reasonable. Changes of paradigms occasionally occur but to convince the community of such change may be long and hard so in reality chances of funding may be lower than what the idea deserves. It will all depend on what kind of main stream results you negate. To put it harshly, it will depend on how much of the field that will be deeply affected. – Peter Jansson Jan 26 '14 at 9:09
Thanks Peter. Your reply clear up some of my concerns. I will not ask further details which could actually potentially become a new question. Thanks again. – scaaahu Jan 26 '14 at 9:17
Thanks scaaahu, I was thinking the same while providing the comment. – Peter Jansson Jan 26 '14 at 9:28
Excellent answer. However, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun, and aren't we all just re-applying the same scientific method over and over? How does one compare two proposals and say which one is more novel and innovative? – Superbest Oct 17 '14 at 1:04

The dumb (but maybe best) answer is: It's what the reviewers and the funding agency regard as "novel".

In some cases, this might be true for your example (e.g in medicine, it can be very valuable to investigate just an other aspect), but in most cases you should aim for something which is significantly beyond the current scope of the field (but still reachable). It should not be a straight-forward engineering approach (since this is development, not research).

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