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Executive Summary Over the years, surface transportation in the United States has seen numer- ous major improvements and policy innovations informed by research: safer and more fuel-efficient automobiles; more durable and economical pavement designs; real-time tracking of cargo shipments; and a resur- gence of freight rail following deregulation of the railroad industry, to cite but a few examples. Leaders within the transportation community have questioned, however, whether the current U.S. approach to surface transportation research will lead to the innovations in transportation ser- vices and policies needed to support national goals for economic develop- ment, safety, mobility, competitiveness, and sustainability in the 21st century. The issue is rendered all the more pressing by the policy stances of a number of the United States’ competitors in Europe and Asia. These nations not only place greater emphasis on transportation research as a vital means of achieving economic, societal, and environmental goals; they also have effective frameworks for prioritizing, funding, assembling, and coordinating research activities. In 2008, U.S. transportation research experts undertook a scanning tour of European and Asian countries, and what they saw during the tour highlighted the potential of alternative research frameworks for improving the effectiveness of transportation research in the United States. Subsequently the state departments of transportation, through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, asked the Trans- portation Research Board to convene an expert committee for a follow- up assignment: to describe and evaluate potential frameworks and institutional models for surface transportation research1 in the United 1 To render its task tractable with available resources, the committee focused on highways, rail, and public transportation. 1
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2 Framing Surface Transportation Research for the Nation’s Future States that would be based on experience in the transportation sector internationally and in nontransportation sectors domestically. The U.S. surface transportation research enterprise at present is char- acterized by a diversity of participants, activities, and funding sources; and it is highly decentralized, with most research programs initiated from the bottom up. As a result, much of the research aims at specific problems identified by sponsors and is relatively short term and applied in nature. Such research has led to important transportation improvements, but the imbalance between bottom-up and top-down approaches leads to missed opportunities. The U.S. system too frequently lacks clear linkages between research and national goals, and it tends to focus on solving narrowly defined problems at the expense of basic and advanced research that could form the basis for exploring broader crosscutting issues and developing innovative solutions to long-term challenges. Moreover, because research activities remain largely uncoordinated and fragmented, the integrative systems-level research needed to support national goals receives insufficient attention. A NEW NATIONAL RESEARCH FRAMEWORK A new and more cohesive national framework offers the opportunity to strengthen U.S. surface transportation research by establishing a holistic approach to problem solving and by building greater con- nectivity among researchers and research activities. To help create such a framework, the committee considered its desirable attributes, devised a framework concept, and recommended the necessary steps to develop the concept into a new national research framework (illustrated in Figure ES-1). The committee recommends that a group of influential organizations, led by the Standing Committee on Research of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and comprised of rep- resentatives from the public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors, should launch the framework initiative. This leadership group should assume responsibility for a national summit, which, based on the frame- work concept, would explore effective strategies for addressing major challenges that face surface transportation research. A subsequent report
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Executive Summary 3 FIGURE ES-1 Steps leading to a new national research framework. from the summit convener would examine ways of implementing the framework and funding its programs. A MORE PRODUCTIVE FEDERAL RESEARCH ENTERPRISE The committee recommends actions to be taken by the federal govern- ment in support of the transition to a new national research framework for surface transportation. These actions would also help build a more productive federal research enterprise. The U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) has primary responsibility for the health of the nation’s transportation system, but other federal departments, such as Energy and Defense, also devote con- siderable resources to surface transportation–related research in sup- port of their missions. To make better use of federal resources, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should create a task force to explore potential synergies and gains from greater coordination among pertinent agencies. For the U.S. DOT to be an important player in the new national research framework, as befits its mission, the department needs to strengthen its
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4 Framing Surface Transportation Research for the Nation’s Future overall research culture and capacity. In addition, the department should engage more fully with the research community; such engagement would help the U.S. DOT to leverage the investments in technical and policy areas made by other federal departments as well as by states, industry, and aca- demia. One option the Secretary of Transportation may wish to consider for furthering progress toward both these objectives is to establish the posi- tion of chief scientist within the Office of the Secretary. This individual could serve as a science and technology advisor to the Secretary and be the U.S. DOT’s champion for research. Finally, federally funded research should more explicitly and inten- sively explore high-risk, high-payoff opportunities for “quantum leaps” in transportation performance. In that spirit, the committee recommends the establishment of a broad and robust program of basic and advanced research encompassing the many disciplines relevant to surface transpor- tation. To help ensure its longevity, the program should be embedded in a culture that values research. Replacing the current fragmented assemblage of activities and fund- ing by a more cohesive research framework is not without challenges. For example, there is no current organization or research group that could effectively serve the multimodal leadership, stewardship, and funding roles that the framework calls for. But by working together, surface trans- portation leaders and the research community have an opportunity to build a more productive research enterprise in support of national goals. The end result will be a more cohesive and coordinated national research framework.