I’ve had reasons to read and think more about research grant applications over the last years; I’ve written some, exchanged feedback with colleagues, and I was on one of the review panels for Vetenskapsrådet last year. As a general observation, it appears that I’m not the only one who struggles with explaining the ”Significance and novelty” of my work. That’s a pretty banal observation. But why is that?
It’s easy to imagine that this difficulty is just because of the curse of knowledge, that researchers are so deeply invested in our research topics that it is hard for us to imagine anyone not intuitively understanding what topic X is about, and how vital this is to humanity. Oh, those lofty scientists levitating in their mushroom towers! I am sure that is partially right; the curse of knowledge is a big problem when writing about your science, but there is a bigger problem.
If we look at statements of significance (for example in my own early drafts), it is pretty common to see significance and novelty established in a disembodied way:
This work is significant because topic X is a Big Problem.
This establishes that the sub-field encompassing the work is important in a general way.
This work is novel because, despite sustained research, no-one has yet done experiment Y in species Z with approach Å.
This establishes that there is a particular gap in the sub-sub-field where this research fits.
What these sentences fail to establish is the causal chain that the reader cares about: Will performing this research, at this time, make a worthwhile contribution to solving the Big Problem?
And there might be a simple explanation: The kind of reasoning required here is unique to the grant application. When writing papers, it is sufficient to establish that the area around the work is important and that the work ”… offers insights …” in some manner. After all, the insights are offered right there in the paper. The reader can look at them and figure out the value for themselves. The reader of a grant application can’t, because the insights have not materialised yet.
When planning new work and convincing your immediate collaborators that the work is worthwhile pursuing, you also don’t have to employ these kinds of arguments. The colleagues are likely motivated by other factors, like the direct implications for their work (and cv), how fun the new project will be, or how much they’d like to work with you. Again, the reader of the grant application needs another kind of convincing.
Thankfully, the funders help out. Here are some of the questions the VR peer review handbook (pdf) lists, that pertain to significance and novelty:
To what extent does the proposed project define new, interesting scientific questions?
To what extent does the proposed project use new ways and methods to address important scientific questions?
When applicable, is the proposed development of methods or techniques of high scientific significance? Does the proposed development allow new scientific questions to be addressed?
Maybe that helps. See you around, I need to go practice explaining how my work leads to new scientific questions.