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Research Proposals - Background or Significance

The Background Section or Significance (Need) for the Work

This section will be labeled differently depending on the guidelines. It addresses why the proposed work is important in the field, and answers the question, “so what?” In this section, provide the status quo of the relevant work field and identify a gap in knowledge or activities that must be filled to move the field forward. Sufficient details should be given in this discussion (1) to make clear what the research problem is and exactly what has been accomplished; (2) to give evidence of your own competence in the field; and (3) to show why the previous work needs to be continued.

Literature reviews should be selective and critical. Reviewers do not want to read through a voluminous working bibliography; they want to know the pertinent works and your evaluation of them. Discussions of work done by others should therefore lead the reader to a clear impression of how you will be building upon what has already been done and how your work differs from theirs. It is important to establish what is original in your approach (innovative), what circumstances have changed since related work was done, or what is unique about the time and place of the proposed research. Note: guidelines may require a separate section for innovation or for transformative potential of the work.

This is one place where a PI may include their own work (and that of their research team) related or preliminary to the proposed study. Preliminary data or pilot studies must relate directly to the hypothesis or aims, and show the reviewer that the aims are feasible and the team has the required experience and skills. Data may or may not be published, but published data have more credibility.


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