CHAPTER 4
Assessment of the Federal Highway Research and Technology Program

CHAPTER HIGHLIGHTS

  • The context for the federal highway research and technology (R&T) program includes an important historical role, numerous stakeholders, many other independent highway research programs, and significant barriers to innovation.

  • Eight key characteristics of effective and successful research programs are used to assess the federal highway R&T program.

  • Significant accomplishments in the federal program are noted, as well as areas in which improvement would be beneficial to the national highway R&T effort.

This chapter provides an assessment of the federal role in promoting and conducting highway research and technology (R&T) activities. It begins with a review of the institutional and historical context in which the federal highway R&T program operates.1 The second section describes eight key characteristics that are crucial to the success and effectiveness of a research program and provides the committee’s assessment of the current federal highway R&T program in light of these characteristics.

1

 As noted previously, the committee uses the term “federal highway R&T program” to refer to the combined responsibilities and actions of Congress, the administration, and FHWA in funding federal highway research, determining research needs, setting research program priorities, and executing the research program.



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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology CHAPTER 4 Assessment of the Federal Highway Research and Technology Program CHAPTER HIGHLIGHTS The context for the federal highway research and technology (R&T) program includes an important historical role, numerous stakeholders, many other independent highway research programs, and significant barriers to innovation. Eight key characteristics of effective and successful research programs are used to assess the federal highway R&T program. Significant accomplishments in the federal program are noted, as well as areas in which improvement would be beneficial to the national highway R&T effort. This chapter provides an assessment of the federal role in promoting and conducting highway research and technology (R&T) activities. It begins with a review of the institutional and historical context in which the federal highway R&T program operates.1 The second section describes eight key characteristics that are crucial to the success and effectiveness of a research program and provides the committee’s assessment of the current federal highway R&T program in light of these characteristics. 1  As noted previously, the committee uses the term “federal highway R&T program” to refer to the combined responsibilities and actions of Congress, the administration, and FHWA in funding federal highway research, determining research needs, setting research program priorities, and executing the research program.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology CONTEXT Previous chapters have described the scope and organization of the U.S. highway system (Chapter 2) and reviewed highway research activities that serve the system and its users (Chapter 3). The discussion in these chapters encompasses much of the context in which highway research is performed. In summary, four contextual features are important for understanding the federal role—what it is and what it could be: Numerous stakeholders—Highway users, state and local highway agencies, contractors and suppliers, people and communities served and affected by highways, and many others benefit from highway research. Some, such as state and local highway agencies, are critical to the implementation of innovative products and practices developed through research. Others, such as universities and other research organizations, have a stake in the management, administration, and direction of highway research programs. In addition to responding to these external stakeholders, the R&T program of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) must respond to internal customers and stakeholders. The agency’s core business units and service business units share responsibility for R&T with its research unit, and also have other responsibilities (for example, policy analysis) that generate research needs. The other modal administrations and federal agencies outside the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) are also stakeholders to some extent, especially if they have research programs with common interests and research opportunities. One program among many—Including the research programs operated by individual state departments of transportation, there are well over 50 programs that sponsor highway research in the United States; many more sponsor highway-related research. The organization of the research in this decentralized manner mirrors the way the highway industry is organized and thereby offers significant advantages, primarily keeping research close to important stakeholders and reflecting diverse perspectives. Nonetheless, the potential exists for significant gaps in research, unnecessary duplication, results that are not transferable, and inadequate follow-up on promising research results. No single research program, even a large one operated by a federal agency, can operate autonomously without sacrificing the overall effectiveness of highway research activities. Barriers to innovation—Highway innovation is difficult for several reasons, including the fact that the highway sector is a decentralized industry with many components, public-sector procurement practices provide little incentive to innovate, and many public-sector agencies are averse to risk. Research aimed at developing more complete characterizations of system and component performance features can help public officials better manage the risks inherent in

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology innovation and thereby improve the potential for public-sector acceptance of innovation. Promising products and techniques do not transfer into practice automatically or with ease; therefore, proactive technology transfer activities are needed. Moreover, given the understandable focus of most stakeholders, highway research generally does not address breakthrough innovations that might affect highways in the longer term. Important federal role—The federal government, acting primarily through FHWA, has for decades been important to the many highway research programs operating in the United States. Federal funds account for about 60 percent of total highway R&T funding. With program staff and technology transfer activities in every state, as well as an international program, FHWA has the connections and resources needed to gather information about research, conduct key research programs, and disseminate information about promising results. Indirectly, because states can spend a portion of their federal-aid highway funds on research and FHWA helps coordinate the research undertaken, the federal program exerts an influence on decisions made by individual state departments of transportation concerning research. KEY CHARACTERISTICS OF AN EFFECTIVE FEDERAL HIGHWAY R&T PROGRAM Successful and effective research programs have certain characteristics regardless of the topic area or field in which they are engaged. They also incorporate features that are tailored to the specific context in which they operate. Drawing on both types of features, the committee has identified eight characteristics that are crucial to the success and effectiveness of the federal highway R&T program: Clear mission with well-defined goals that complement other R&T programs, Significant opportunities for technological progress and innovation, Early and sustained external stakeholder involvement, Provisions for open competition and merit review to safeguard the federal R&T investment, Mechanisms for information management and dissemination, Rigorous program evaluation, Adequate resources, and Appropriate leadership of national highway R&T activities. The following sections describe these characteristics and provide the committee’s assessment of the extent to which they are reflected in R&T activities administered by FHWA.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology Clear Mission with Well-Defined Program Goals That Complement Other Programs Description A clear mission and well-defined program goals help research programs remain well focused. They provide a basis for keeping the program on course and avoiding diversions that can waste limited resources. Identifying an appropriate role for federal highway R&T, however, is a complex task. Although the role of the program must be based on the nation’s vision of its future transportation system, there are uncertainties about the future federal role in the highway program— among members of Congress, DOT officials, state highway officials, and others. The completion of the Interstate highway system, growing demands on the federal highway program by an increasingly diverse group of stakeholders, and FHWA’s 1998 reorganization to focus on technology delivery intensify these uncertainties. Nevertheless, the program must pursue research important to FHWA’s mission responsibilities, including national transportation policy issues, planning and environmental regulations, intermodal considerations, and many technical issues associated with ensuring that federal-aid highway program funds are used efficiently and effectively. In addition, the program must address the needs of state and local highway agencies responsible for building, operating, and maintaining the nation’s highway system, and must serve the full range of stakeholders that use, rely upon, and are affected by the system. In addition to having a clear mission and well-defined goals, research programs need to complement other programs that have related interests. This is especially true for the federal highway R&T program because, as noted previously, it is but one—although the largest—among many programs, each with its own emphasis areas and relative strengths. For example, although some state highway research addresses long-term issues, these programs tend to emphasize finding immediate solutions to problems, such as materials performance, safety, and traffic operations, faced daily by state agency officials. The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) addresses common problems faced by the states and generally focuses on seeking near-term solutions that are practical and readily usable. Private-sector research tends to be near-term oriented as well, usually aimed at improving competitiveness or creating a new product or service. Assessment On the basis of discussions with many senior-level FHWA program managers and information gained through its ongoing review of the agency’s R&T

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology activities, the committee finds that FHWA’s R&T mission is not clearly defined, and its role relative to other highway research programs is not well articulated. As a federal agency operating a national program, FHWA has resources that enable it to undertake large-scale research activities and support facilities and laboratories at a level not possible for the states and private-sector programs. In the past, the agency has been able to use these resources and facilities to test concepts, designs, and materials of interest to the states. An example is the recent testing of curved steel bridge members at FHWA’s structures laboratory. Such activities are a natural complement to other programs and are an appropriate use of the agency’s resources. However, too few of FHWA’s R&T activities so clearly complement other highway R&T programs and conform to a mission, implicit or explicit, that reflects the agency’s unique capabilities. In addition, it appears that FHWA’s R&T is responsive to the problems of the agency’s internal stakeholders and the directors of the core business units, and serves the agency’s policy and regulatory interests well. In the committee’s view, however, other areas, including fundamental issues related to the needs of the agency’s many diverse external stakeholders, are not being addressed. In a previous report, the committee recommended that FHWA’s R&T program seek large payoffs through more exploratory and high-risk research aimed at technological breakthroughs capable of significantly altering the way things are done in the highway industry (TRB 1994). Although such research might be perceived as risky by the other highway R&T programs, it can provide new, fundamental understanding that adds to the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of those other programs. Such research exploits the strengths of a federal agency—a national perspective, significant financial resources and facilities, and direct connections to all highway and other federal agency R&T programs—and addresses topics appropriate for federal agency research (see Box 4-1). FHWA is also well positioned to undertake more research aimed at addressing research gaps not dealt with by other highway R&T programs, as well as emerging issues—stemming from changing demographics, increased demands of a changing economy, and opportunities afforded by new technologies—that can affect the nation’s transportation system. Such research activities serve external customers and complement other highway research programs. Finally, FHWA’s research program has long had close ties to the state, NCHRP, and private-sector research programs. However, the opportunity exists to achieve better complementarity by adopting a research mission focused on developing the building blocks these other programs could use.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology BOX 4-1 Bases for Federal Involvement in Research and Technology The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy identified certain characteristics that make federal research involvement and funding appropriate. The Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) used these characteristics as a basis for determining what it believes should be the focus of FHWA’s R&T program: Supports long-term, national transportation goals, Has benefits that are too diverse for a single company to recover and profit from its investment, Is associated with cost or risk that is beyond the capacity of any individual company, and Generates benefits that will begin to be realized too far in the future to pass the threshold of private investment criteria. SOURCE: NSTC (1999, p. v). Conclusion FHWA’s R&T program is focused too heavily on near-term issues and current problems, making it indistinguishable in this sense from the other highway R&T programs. Although the program addresses important internal goals well, it is missing the opportunity to focus more on fundamental, long-term research while also pursuing research to address gaps not dealt with by other research programs and emerging issues with national implications. Significant Opportunities for Technological Progress and Innovation Description The aim of any applied research program is to develop new technologies, materials, and methods that, when implemented, will help deliver better, more cost-effective services. Highway R&T is aimed at developing innovations for highway

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology practice. Regardless of how well a research program is designed, organized, and funded, however, it is unlikely to fulfill this mission if there are few promising opportunities for innovation. Opportunities must exist to adapt technologies developed from basic research, transfer technologies from other fields, or modify existing practices to incorporate new knowledge or fit new conditions. No one can guarantee that a research initiative will be successful by changing practice or producing benefits that outweigh its costs. But if the opportunities are sufficiently robust and promising, the likely programwide benefits will outweigh total research and development costs. Assessment The business of renewing, operating, and managing the nation’s highway system provides many opportunities for innovation based on R&T results. The working groups of the National Highway R&T Partnership Forum—ad hoc groups representing scores of highway-related organizations—developed an extensive agenda of research opportunities in the areas of highway safety; operations and mobility; environment; and policy analysis, planning, and system monitoring (Appendix B includes the entire agenda). The following examples illustrate the nature and scope of opportunities for advancing highway practice through federal highway R&T: Applying new knowledge—There are several ways of finding new knowledge to apply to highway transportation. New knowledge from basic research in such diverse fields as human behavior and materials science has considerable potential in this regard. Research on human factors—how individuals receive and process information—could lead to new standards for in-vehicle displays and road signs that would reduce driver distraction and promote highway safety. Research on the atomic and molecular structure of concrete—a fairly common material used in pavements, bridges, and other highway structures—could lead to breakthroughs in its performance and durability and reduce its cost (see Box 4-2). In addition, the application of known techniques could lead to better understanding of the highly complex interactions among many highway system components. Asphalt research under the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) included important epidemiological studies that led to Superpave®. Similar complexity is found in the areas of concrete performance, crash causation, and the impacts of new intelligent transportation systems (ITS)–based vehicle technologies on travel demand. Research that helps increase understanding of these complexities could lead to significant performance improvements.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology BOX 4-2 Proposed Fundamental Research in Concrete Pavements A committee of the National Research Council’s National Materials Advisory Board recently proposed a program of advanced concrete research for FHWA aimed at the development of innovative concrete pavement technology (NRC 1997, p. 9). The committee was asked to look beyond near-term improvements in concrete pavements to identify opportunities for research on innovative and possibly unconventional materials and processes with the potential to accelerate construction, improve the durability of highway pavements and bridges, and enhance the serviceability and longevity of new facilities. The committee estimated that meeting any one of these goals could save billions of dollars in construction and maintenance costs. It concluded that viewing concrete as a single integrated system rather than a conglomerate of parts assembled through a sequence of unit processes could lead to important innovations. The committee recommended research aimed at understanding the development and behavior of the cement matrix and its microstructure at levels—the atomic and molecular—not yet explored. Such understanding is the primary path toward the development of more reliable methods for controlling the micro-, meso-, and macromorphology of concrete that are needed if innovative concrete products are to be developed. Applying and transferring new technologies—The field of ITS is predicated on the potential for using information and communication technologies to improve the performance and safety of existing transportation systems. New highway traffic control devices, driver information systems, and in-vehicle monitoring and warning devices are emerging, but there is considerably more potential in this area. For example, in-vehicle recording devices, similar to those used in commercial aircraft, can yield operating and performance data that can help researchers develop fundamental knowledge about the causes of crashes. This knowledge, in turn, can lead to improved crash prevention and vehicle crash-worthiness. Design practices, construction materials, traffic simulation, and air-quality modeling are other areas in which new technologies and methods might be adapted from other fields for highway application.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology Adapting to changing conditions and values—Highway transportation is constantly subject to changes that can affect system performance and the way that performance is perceived. These changes produce a new set of needs and expectations that cannot be addressed without research. For example, growth in urban traffic and congestion means that highway maintenance projects and other sources of nonrecurring congestion, such as crashes and special events, can result in substantial and unexpected delays for travelers. Construction practices and procedures for handling crashes and other incidents can potentially be reengineered to reduce these delays significantly. Likewise, evolving environmental concerns result in research opportunities to develop new environmental assessment and design techniques. And the growth in truck traffic creates the need for new design and operational methods, as well as intermodal transfer facilities, all of which can be developed with the aid of research. Transferring successful highway applications—Highway agencies and highway-related organizations throughout the world encounter many of the same problems, and the solutions they develop are potentially transferable to other locations and other agencies. Domestically, the Jersey concrete barrier, currently in widespread use throughout the nation, illustrates these opportunities (see Box 1-4 in Chapter 1). These barriers originated with designs developed by General Motors for use on its high-speed test track. Research by the New Jersey Department of Transportation led to a barrier design that greatly improves work zone safety and reduces run-off-the-road crashes. Internationally, the performance of pavements made from stone-matrix asphalt—an open-graded mix used widely in Europe and capable of supporting very heavy loads—impressed a group of U.S. highway engineers visiting their counterparts in Europe in 1990. Such pavements are now used in several states. Conclusion There are numerous opportunities for technological progress and innovation in many areas of highway transportation, including human factors, construction materials, design practices, and traffic control systems. Early and Sustained External Stakeholder Involvement Description Research needs to be closely connected to its stakeholders to ensure relevance and program support. Stakeholders are more likely to promote the use of research

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology results if they are involved in the innovation process from the start (TRB 1999). For highway research, the potential stakeholders include the state and local highway agencies that own and operate the highway system; highway users; the companies that furnish the products, services, and equipment needed to build, maintain, and operate the system; and the people and communities that benefit from and are impacted by the system. Many of these stakeholders are responsible for implementing research results. Research programs of the Construction Industry Institute, the Electric Power Research Institute, and NCHRP amply demonstrate the value of stakeholder involvement. In each of these mission-oriented, pooled-fund programs, stakeholders actively participate in identifying research needs, programming research funds, selecting research performers, and monitoring research progress (TRB 1999). In addition, stakeholders are called upon to build program support, maintain program relevance, and promote the implementation of research results. However, stakeholder involvement for fundamental, long-term research differs from such involvement for a program of near-term, problem-solving research. Because stakeholders generally are driven by near-term needs and incentives, they can be poor predictors of long-term trends and opportunities.2 As a result, managing stakeholder involvement for fundamental research involves balancing stakeholder input with the views of external advisors familiar with trends and technological opportunities. Both groups provide essential information for determining which research areas and specific directions hold promise for significant breakthroughs. Assessment As noted previously, FHWA’s R&T program currently addresses research needs identified primarily by its internal stakeholders, mainly the core business unit directors. Although external stakeholders are far less involved in guiding the program, FHWA’s support of the Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) for the past decade has led to continuing, strategic-level external guidance on highway R&T opportunities and priorities and occasional examinations of specific research issues. However, a single committee cannot provide broad-based stakeholder input on the full range of potential highway research topics or specific projects on a continuing basis.3 2 Christensen (1997) illustrated this point for the disk drive industry and for a component of the construction equipment industry. 3 In a previous report the committee urged FHWA to put in place formal mechanisms for soliciting and employing input from its R&T partners and customers (RTCC 2000a).

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology The recent activities of the National Highway R&T Partnership Forum and its working groups—with considerable support from FHWA—attest to the interest and willingness of industry stakeholders to be involved in the research program (Box 4-3 provides more information on the forum). These activities represent a promising beginning for improved external stakeholder involvement, but the forum’s temporary working groups cannot substitute for a continuous, BOX 4-3 The National Highway R&T Partnership Forum: Major Infusion of Stakeholder Involvement The National Highway R&T Partnership Forum was initiated in 1998 by FHWA, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the Transportation Research Board (TRB). Its purpose is to better coordinate investments among highway R&T programs in a manner that involves the diverse array of highway transportation stakeholders. The forum has no official standing and relies entirely on volunteer participation. In 1999 it provided an opportunity for highway stakeholders to participate in identifying national highway R&T needs. Working groups were organized to examine research needs in five areas: highway safety; operations and mobility; infrastructure renewal; environment; and policy analysis, planning, and system monitoring. Each working group prepared a summary report based on inputs from hundreds of individuals and scores of organizations. The working group reports provide a unique catalogue of research needs—identified by volunteer coalitions of highway industry specialists and stakeholders—requiring innovative solutions believed to be achievable through research. The forum’s research agenda is included in Appendix B. A synthesis of the working group reports is available at www.trb.org/trb/homepage.nsf/web/r&t_forum. The activities of the forum and working groups illustrate the potential for broad stakeholder involvement in identifying research needs. The reports of the working groups provide managers of highway R&T programs with valuable information about a wide range of research needs and could form the basis for continuing stakeholder involvement for years to come.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology systematic process that encourages and solicits external stakeholder contributions. Moreover, the working groups have merely identified research needs and priorities. Effective external stakeholder involvement also includes participation in R&T funding decisions and in review and evaluation of program results. Conclusion FHWA research meets the needs of its internal customers, and the agency’s support of the National Highway R&T Partnership Forum is an important step toward engaging its external stakeholders. However, the need remains for a systematic approach to the sustained participation of external stakeholders in determining the direction and research topics for the FHWA program, setting priorities, and making R&T funding decisions. Provisions for Open Competition and Merit Review to Safeguard the Federal R&T Investment Description There is no way to guarantee that research funds will be spent effectively after they have been programmed for a specific purpose. Nevertheless, open competition and merit review are accepted as the best possible safeguards (NRC 1999). Open competition is aimed at attracting the best possible research talent from the widest pool of potential researchers. Merit review involves the review of research proposals by independent technical experts—internal or external—based on predetermined technical criteria. Independent external expert review helps ensure the quality of research projects and programs. It is recognized as an excellent means of assessing the relevance of research to an agency’s mission and considered to be the most effective way of evaluating research programs (NRC 1999).4 Periodic peer exchanges— modeled on expert reviews and similar to benchmarking activities—are used by state highway agencies for their research program activities (Harder 2001). Assessment Historically, the majority of FHWA’s contract research program has been based on open competition and merit review by agency staff. These methods are 4 The peer review process for evaluating research proposals used by the National Science Foundation has proven to be a successful approach to external review.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology viewed favorably by the General Accounting Office as the basis for research contract awards and used in many federal agency research programs, as well as state highway research programs and NCHRP (GAO 1999). Nevertheless, FHWA could enhance these methods for its program by including independent external experts on the review panels. In addition, providing an opportunity for researchers to submit unsolicited proposals, to be judged on the basis of merit, would be desirable.5 At the same time, an increasing share of FHWA-administered research is not awarded on the basis of open competition and merit review, primarily because Congress has chosen to designate more research projects and research performers. In 2001 such designations amounted to 51 percent of FHWA’s research funding. With new designations being made each year as part of the congressional appropriations process, FHWA not only has fewer resources for sustaining a competitively awarded, merit-based highway research program, but also cannot predict accurately in advance the level of resources that will be available for such a program. Finally, such designations reduce the agency’s ability to direct its research to areas of consensus-based national emphasis. Conclusion Including independent external experts on research proposal and project review panels would enhance FHWA’s current approach to management of contract research. The trend toward increasing congressional designation of research projects and research performers and away from competitively awarded, merit-based highway research reduces the agency’s ability to utilize the nation’s best research talent and to conduct research on topics that represent the consensus of the highway system’s stakeholders on research needs. Mechanisms for Information Management and Dissemination Description Mechanisms for information management and dissemination address two closely related activities. The first is gathering information about research needs, activities, and products, as well as other innovations with potential for implementation. The second is disseminating information about research activities under 5 The committee has previously endorsed alternative approaches to solicitation of research topics and research contracting suggested by FHWA (1993).

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology way, promising innovations, and best practices. Research programs can share this information to better coordinate their own activities and minimize unnecessary duplication of effort across programs. Such information can also indicate opportunities for increased collaboration and partnering among research programs. In light of the decentralized nature of highway research, information management and dissemination are particularly important, requiring connections to state and local highway agency personnel; state, private-sector, and university researchers; and managers of other federal and international R&T programs. Assessment FHWA undertakes many activities in support of the management and dissemination of research information. The agency, together with other federal agencies, state departments of transportation, and other sponsors, provides funding that supports the core activities of TRB. These activities include nearly 200 committees comprising thousands of transportation professionals from all over the world; the TRB Annual Meeting, at which more than 1,500 technical presentations are made; numerous technical conferences throughout the year; several series of publications on transportation research; and an online bibliographic database that now contains more than 500,000 abstracts and citations of completed and in-progress transportation research. FHWA also partners with other organizations, including ITS America, the Civil Engineering Research Foundation, and the Institute for Transportation Engineers, to promote highway innovation. Since 1990, FHWA, working with AASHTO and other organizations, has organized 44 international technology-scanning tours aimed at identifying and evaluating innovative technologies and methods in other countries for potential application in the U.S. highway system. FHWA also funds the Local Technical Assistance Program, the largest coordinated national transportation technology transfer activity, with centers in every state, Puerto Rico, and eight Indian reservations. The potential for improving FHWA’s technology transfer activities, as reported previously by this committee, remains (TRB 1999). As noted earlier, FHWA reorganized in 1998 to focus more on technology delivery, creating four resource centers that provide technical and program assistance, training, and technology delivery to the agency’s division offices, state and local highway agencies, and others.6 Together, FHWA’s headquarters office, resource centers, and division offices position the agency to gather information on national highway research needs and 6 The resource centers are located in Atlanta, Baltimore, Olympia Fields (Illinois), and San Francisco. There is an FHWA division office in each state.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology activities in the United States and worldwide, and to disseminate this information to other researchers and those who implement research results. The committee previously recommended that FHWA monitor its individual technology transfer activities, including information gathering and dissemination, and assess their performance to learn what does and does not work for highway technology transfer (TRB 1999). Doing so is particularly important for research results involving highly innovative and breakthrough technologies, which, as noted earlier, the committee has urged FHWA to pursue. To build upon such research results, researchers and engineers will need considerable guidance and direction so they can adopt these technologies and adapt them to their needs. Conclusion Although FHWA has engaged successfully in many technology transfer activities in the past, the agency needs to determine what technology transfer practices are most effective to achieve the needed changes in transportation practices by state and local agencies. Rigorous Program Evaluation Description The 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) focused attention on the performance and evaluation of federal government activities, including research.7 Research program evaluation can show where progress is being made and orient agency and program staff to the need to document practical research outcomes.8 It can also lead to change in the research direction or termination of research activities because the potential benefits cannot justify the resources being expended. Input from customers and stakeholders is important to research program evaluation. Such evaluation is inherently difficult because the potential benefits of the research are often years away, difficult to predict, and attributable to multiple research initiatives. Nonetheless, expert evaluation—which includes quality review, relevance review, and benchmarking—provides an effective 7 GPRA requires federal agencies to develop a strategic plan that sets goals and objectives for at least a 5-year period, an annual performance plan that translates the goals of the strategic plan into annual targets, and an annual performance report that demonstrates whether the targets have been met. 8 Potential measures include the number of projects aimed at test and evaluation, the number of state or other highway agencies that adopt research results, and new standards resulting from the research.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology mechanism for assessing research programs by focusing on the documentation of specific practical outcomes and measurement of progress toward their achieve- ment (NRC 1999). Assessment FHWA currently addresses program evaluation in several ways. First, the agency participates in the development of an annual DOT strategic plan, which is the cornerstone of the department’s response to GPRA requirements. Second, FHWA’s Office of Research, Development, and Technology is preparing an internal program evaluation based on the Baldridge Award criteria.9 That office also has initiated an external assessment of the research facilities at FHWA’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. Third, the agency supports this committee’s ongoing efforts aimed at evaluating the strategic direction of its R&T program. These are significant steps toward program evaluation. Nevertheless, the agency has yet to identify the appropriate mix of external customers, stakeholders, and experts for all stages of this evaluation process—a matter of considerable importance if the agency’s focus is to become oriented toward more fundamental, long-term research. Conclusion FHWA has initiated several efforts aimed at program evaluation. Additional attention needs to be given to identifying the appropriate mix of external customers, stakeholders, and experts for all stages of the evaluation, especially if the agency is to focus on more fundamental, long-term research. Adequate Resources Description A successful highway R&T program requires adequate and stable funding to achieve desired results. Without such funding, some important research cannot be undertaken, and opportunities for potentially high payoffs will be missed. 9 The criteria for the Baldridge National Quality Award are leadership, strategic planning, information and analysis, human resources development and management, process management, business results, and customer focus and satisfaction. Congress established the award program in 1987 to recognize U.S. organizations for their achievements in quality and business performance and to raise awareness about the importance of quality and performance excellence as a competitive edge (see www.quality.nist.gov/).

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology Inadequate research funding also can affect the quality and usefulness of research facilities.10 Finally, since federal funding is essential to the state, NCHRP, and university transportation R&T programs, consideration of the adequacy of resources applies to these programs as well. Assessment The RTCC reported in 1994 that total funding for highway R&T was low, and there has been little change since then (TRB 1994). Current annual highway R&T funding represents less than 0.6 percent of annual total public spending on highways. This level of funding is low in light of several factors: the asset value of the highway system; annual public-sector spending on highway construction, maintenance, and operation; and annual highway user spending for owning and operating highway vehicles. The RTCC believes important research needs, including many previously identified by the committee as key environmental, economic, and social issues related to the highway system, are not currently being addressed (TRB 1997). Funding to pursue the potentially high-payoff advanced concrete research described in Box 4-1, for example, is currently unavailable. The reports of the working groups of the National Highway R&T Partnership Forum identify additional examples that would require funding. Conclusion Total funding for federal highway R&T is low, with the result that important research needs are not being addressed despite the potential for high payoffs. Appropriate Leadership of National Highway R&T Activities Description Leadership is vital to the national highway R&T effort because of the importance of the highway system and the potential for research to provide much-needed innovations. The decentralized nature of highway R&T, coupled with the large number of interrelated but independent programs, calls for leadership that influences—rather than sets research directions in—all the individual programs, with the objective of achieving mutual research goals. As noted earlier, 10 In a recent assessment of FHWA’s Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory, the committee noted that inadequate funding prevented upgrading the laboratory facilities and limited the researchers’ ability to address important emerging research needs (RTCC 2000b).

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology private-sector decision makers often look to federal programs for direction and leadership; absent such leadership, they are reluctant to commit corporate funds for highway R&T. Assessment There are several reasons to expect FHWA to serve as the leader of the national highway R&T effort. FHWA is the federal mission agency responsible for the nation’s highway transportation system and has the largest single highway R&T program. Its responsibilities include advancing national highway policy, administering the federal-aid highway program, and developing and enforcing many highway regulations. Moreover, an important part of the agency’s mission is to support innovation through technology transfer, education and training, and technical support. In addition, FHWA has direct connections to all the state and many local highway agencies, as well as the other federal, state, private-sector, and university R&T programs. Examples of how FHWA currently supports the other highway R&T programs have been discussed in Chapter 3 (many of these examples are listed in Table 3-2). Although such support suggests the agency’s leadership potential, this potential is constrained by the federal program’s current performance relative to several other assessment criteria, as discussed above. FHWA needs to establish a strong identity for its R&T program, one that complements the other highway R&T programs. The agency also needs to adopt a systematic approach to external stakeholder involvement and to increase significantly the proportion of the program that is competed openly and awarded on merit. In addition, leadership requires a comprehensive vision of how the highway transportation system can evolve. Such a vision has yet to be developed and presented. The committee’s specific program recommendations are presented in the next chapter. Conclusion As the federal mission agency responsible for the federal-aid highway program, FHWA is well positioned to be the leader for the national highway R&T effort by influencing rather than directing other programs. The agency has supported the national highway R&T effort in many ways in the past. An appropriate leadership role for FHWA includes becoming the national leader in fundamental, long-term highway research. Continued support of the state, NCHRP, university, and private-sector research programs would enhance this leadership role. Examples of such support include characterizing national highway technology

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology needs, evaluating the public costs and benefits of new highway technologies, and monitoring federal agency and international R&T programs for new technologies. (Table 3-2 lists additional examples.) SUMMARY Table 4-1 summarizes the committee’s assessment of the current federal highway R&T program against the characteristics discussed above. Table 4-1 Assessment of FHWA’s Highway R&T Program According to Key Characteristics Key Characteristics Assessment Clear mission with well-defined program goals that complement other R&T programs The current program is focused too heavily on near-term issues and current problems and is not easily distinguishable from the other highway R&T programs. It is missing the opportunity to focus on fundamental, long-term research. Significant opportunities for technological progress and innovation There is a potential for significant progress and technological breakthroughs in many areas, including human factors, construction materials, design practices, and traffic control systems. Early and sustained external stakeholder involvement Although the program appears to serve FHWA’s internal stakeholders adequately, it lacks a systematic approach for the sustained participation of external stakeholders in determining the program’s direction and research topics, setting priorities, and making R&T funding decisions. Provisions for open competition and merit review to safeguard the federal R&T investment Historically, the Federal Highway Contract Research Program has been based largely on open competition and merit review by agency staff. These procedures would be enhanced by more involvement of external experts and openness to unsolicited proposals from qualified researchers. The share of the program subject to these controls (now about 49 percent) is decreasing because Congress has designated many research projects and researchers.

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology Key Characteristics Assessment Mechanisms for information management and dissemination The program is somewhat successful at gathering, sharing, and disseminating information about research needs, activities, and innovations and at supporting the other highway R&T activities and programs. FHWA needs to examine and evaluate what does and does not work for information gathering and dissemination. Rigorous program evaluation FHWA has taken several steps aimed at research program evaluation, but a wider range of external stakeholders could be involved in the evaluation process. Adequate resources Total funding for federal highway R&T is low— less than 0.5 percent of total annual highway program expenditures—with the result that important research needs are not addressed despite the potential for high payoffs. Appropriate leadership of national highway R&T activities As the federal mission agency responsible for the federal-aid highway program, FHWA is well positioned to be the leader for the national highway R&T effort by influencing rather than directing other programs but has yet to capitalize on this positioning. The agency has supported the national highway R&T effort in many ways in the past. An appropriate leadership role for FHWA includes becoming the national leader in fundamental, long-term highway research. Continued support of the other highway R&T programs would enhance this leadership role, as would articulation and presentation of a vision of the nation’s future highway transportation system. REFERENCES Abbreviations FHWA Federal Highway Administration GAO General Accounting Office

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The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology NRC National Research Council NSTC National Science and Technology Council RTCC Research and Technology Coordinating Committee TRB Transportation Research Board Christensen, C. M. 1997. The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Mass. FHWA. 1993. A Report on Research and Development Contracting and Assistance. Office of Program Review. Report OPR-A93-1. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., June. GAO. 1999. Federal Research: Peer Review Practices at Federal Science Agencies Vary. GAO/RCED-99-99. Washington, D.C., March. Harder, B. T. 2001. Peer Exchange: A Value-Added Program Management Tool. National Cooperative Highway Research Program Project No. 20-7/Task 125. TRB, NRC, Washington, D.C., March. NRC. 1997. Nonconventional Concrete Technologies: Renewal of the Highway Infrastructure. National Research Council, Washington, D.C. NRC. 1999. Evaluating Federal Research Programs: Research and the Government Performance and Results Act. National Research Council, Washington, D.C. NSTC. 1999. National Transportation Science and Technology Strategy. Committee on Technology, Subcommittee on Transportation Research and Development, Office of Science and Technology, Washington, D.C., April. RTCC. 2000a. Letter Report to FHWA Administrator. TRB, NRC, Washington, D.C., March. RTCC. 2000b. Report on an Assessment of the Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory. TRB, NRC, Washington, D.C., October. TRB. 1994. Special Report 244: Highway Research: Current Programs and Future Directions. National Research Council, Washington, D.C. TRB. 1997. The Future Highway Transportation System and Society: Suggested Research on Impacts and Interactions. National Research Council, Washington, D.C. TRB. 1999. Special Report 256: Managing Technology Transfer: A Strategy for the Federal Highway Administration. National Research Council, Washington, D.C.