Hearing: The Role of Research on the Road to Reauthorization

In advance of the impending surface transportation reauthorization, the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing on July 11 regarding existing and future research needs. The discussion touched on all four major research programs authorized by Congress: the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Office of Research, Development, and Technology (RD&T); the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO), State Planning and Research (SP&R), and University Transportation Centers (UTC). Focus rested on the need to expand federal transportation research efforts beyond applied technology (which can be addressed by the private sector as well), to expand on long-term fundamental research efforts.

The hearing followed the release of a Transportation Research Board Report on research funding and support needed from Congress to further innovation in U.S. transportation. The report—The Vital Federal Role in Meeting the Highway Innovation Imperative—finds most of FHWA’s RD&T research, as well as much of ITS JPO’s research, to be largely applied with less of the funding supporting long-term innovative research topics. While the latter type of research is often conducted at universities, the report also found that calls for federally funded university transportation research through the UTCs tends to prioritize applied research above riskier innovative ideas. The lack of federal support for in-depth research beyond existing systems and technologies means the U.S. is poised to fall behind in transportation innovation.

Members used comparisons such as DARPA and ARPA-E (which was modeled after DARPA) as examples of successful funding programs funding university research. What none of the members or witnesses mentioned about these programs is that they are designed as high-risk, high-reward funding, with most the projects expected to fail, and a few to succeed with exceptional outcomes. Research is by nature exploratory and with 85%-90% of DARPA projects failing to meet their full objectives and ARPA-E mandated to fund “long-term and high-risk” projects, it is clear that in order to meet big-picture, high-impact objectives, such as those associated with DARPA and ARPA-E projects, risks must be taken, and frequent failure accepted.

Subcommittee members and witnesses touched on this topic through conversations around return on investment in research and how to utilize and prioritize funds. There was general agreement on the importance of existing applied research, and in order to dive into deeper long-term projects, additional funds must be appropriated. Recent pilots and demonstrations such as the FHWA’s Automated Driving System grants and the FTA’s Mobility on Demand Sandbox show the value of applied research in lessons learned and advancement of technology in transportation, but miss the long-term study of yet-to-be developed technologies, and methods.

Universities are a natural source of longer-term research efforts and have been utilized as such under the UTC program since 1988. Funding for the UTC program has increased since its inception in 1987, and then declined in 2012 when it was paired with a competitive proposal process (i.e. the abolition of Congressional earmarks). The current authorization under the FAST Act is $305 million over five years. Investing in universities also supports the education and training of the next generation workforce at the undergraduate and graduate student level. As noted by one of the witnesses, the last round of UTC applications included over 200 highly qualified proposals with funding available to award only 37 centers. This suggests a lack of funding for a large amount of highly qualified research.

USDOT’s investment in highway-related research is currently only 0.3% of the total annual amount the government spends to build, operate, and maintain roads and highways. It is not hard to understand that growth in the research budget could help inform the best use of the remaining 99.8% of funds.

Deliberations about the next surface transportation bill have just begun. These discussions will be best informed by the research the previous laws supported. Enhancing federal transportation research programs not only ensures that future spending will best support national goals but will also help bring the U.S. back to the forefront of innovation in science and technology.

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