UK Transport Research and Innovation – Reflections and Insights

The Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) is a unique role in the UK Government. Each department that has responsibility to provide independent challenge as well as support and delivery of Science and Technology activities has a CSA. As the Department for Transport (DfT) CSA, I belong to the wider CSA network, led by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Head of the Government Office for Science and National Technology Adviser. Over the last few years the role of the CSA has become more prominent in the UK with both officials and Ministers actively utilising our broad skill set to support the development of evidence-based policy.

The DfT has five Strategic Priorities which underpins everything we do: Reducing Environmental Impacts; Improving Transport for the User; Growing and Levelling Up the Economy; Being an Excellent Department; and Global Impacts. These strategic priorities provide a helpful lens through which we prioritise our funding for research, development and demonstration activities.

In January 2023 I was fortunate to visit the United States to learn more about the work going on there and identify opportunities for learning and partnership. This visit included attending the Transportation Research Board (TRB) annual meeting and connecting with my US Department of Transportation counterpart, Dr Robert Hampshire. I was delighted to discover close synergies between our work, particularly the announcement of the U.S. National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, which hugely mirrored the UK equivalent Transport Decarbonisation Plan on both policy and research ambitions. In addition, the US blueprint highlights the global challenge of decarbonisation in the transport sector and how important it is for us to work collaboratively to tackle this.

The DfT portfolio also covers the various Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) ensuring that we are supporting innovation at all life stages. For example, our Transport Research and Innovation Grants support small teams, often start-up companies, and develop concepts ranging from technologies to help disabled users access transport to innovations to reduce the torque requirements for maritime vessels, contributing to decarbonisation through reduced fuel use. We recently launched calls for two research hubs, UK National Clean Maritime and Net Zero Transport for a Resilient Future, which will bring together academia, industry and public bodies to target and accelerate research. ADEPT Live Labs 2 is a three-year programme that supports local level innovation across roads in cities and regions. Our later TRL funding focuses on trialling technologies at scale, such as the £60m Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition and £200m Zero Emission Road Freight Demonstrator

As CSA, one of my responsibilities is to provide oversight of the DfT research programme. This includes providing friendly challenge to the portfolio and using the outcomes to provide assurance to Ministers. But there is only so much we can do as a government department – much more can be done in industry, universities, and research centres. As CSA I spend much of my time out and about, meeting teams in industry or academia, learning about the work they are conducting, and hearing their views and insights to feed into DfT policy and delivery. To help communicate our priorities, we recently developed a set of Strategic Research questions which will be published as part of our Areas of Research Interest 2023 refresh

Being a CSA involves so many different aspects of physical sciences, engineering, social science and systems thinking with so many brilliant people and is a real joy. I am sure that by continuing to work together and learn from each other, we can ensure that science is at the heart of governments across the world tackling the urgent challenges we face for the future of transport.

Professor Sarah Sharples is Chief Scientific Adviser for the UK Department for Transport. She is a Professor of Human Factors in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham and from 2018 to 2021 was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and People.

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