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September 4, 1997

The Honorable John H. Gibbons
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Old Executive Office Building, Room 424
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Dr. Gibbons:

At the request of Dr. Fenton Carey, Executive Director of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Transportation R&D Committee, the National Research Council, acting through the Transportation Research Board (TRB), convened the Committee on the Federal Transportation R&D Strategic Planning Process. The charge to the TRB study committee was to review the transportation science and technology (S&T) strategy being developed under the auspices of the NSTC Transportation R&D Committee by the Transportation S&T Strategy Team. The 14 members of the TRB study committee (see Attachment 1) met in Washington, D.C., on May 14-16, 1997. During the open sessions of the meeting, the committee heard presentations on the objectives, development, and proposed implementation of the strategy, and discussed these topics with members of the Transportation S&T Strategy Team and with representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and other federal agencies involved in transportation R&D. (A list of guests who attended the committee meeting is provided in Attachment 2.) The committee then met in executive session to deliberate on what it had learned and to develop this report.

Because the transportation S&T strategic planning initiative is in its early stages, the committee's review focused on the nature of the strategic planning process, possible mechanisms for enhancing its effectiveness, and proposed approaches to implementing the strategy. The committee did not assess in detail the technical content of the transportation S&T strategy document developed by the Transportation S&T Strategy Team, in particular the strategic partnership initiatives and the enabling research agenda. The committee did note, however, that, contrary to expectations for a document identifying specific R&D initiatives, the strategy does not currently include information on schedules and costs for R&D.

As a result of its review and deliberations, the TRB study committee offers four major recommendations that address (1) sustaining and strengthening the strategic planning process, (2) strengthening the strategy, (3) implementing the strategy, and (4) developing a strategic plan for transportation R&D within DOT. Further detail on the observations and analysis behind these recommendations is provided in Appendix A. Appendix B is a glossary defining some of the terms used in this report.

Recommendation 1. The transportation S&T strategic planning process should be sustained and strengthened.

The emerging transportation S&T strategy offers the potential for ensuring cost-effective R&D focused on the nation's future transportation needs. At a time when federal R&D budgets are under pressure, a coordinated approach to R&D such as that proposed in the strategy, and related priorities (see 2a below) are essential to obtain a higher return on federal R&D investment. The potential exists to build on the good initial effort and develop a truly national transportation S&T strategy with broad constituency involvement and support.

1a. The transportation S&T strategic planning process should be continued over the long term and institutionalized. Well-directed effort will be needed to support the current planning initiative over the next several years, specifically:

1b. The strategic planning process itself-and not just its implementation (see Recommendation 3)-should be extended to include participants from industry, academia, state departments of transportation, users of transportation systems, and others representing the diverse constituencies in the transportation community. The involvement of a broad spectrum of participants is essential to:

1c. Greater emphasis should be placed on the iterative nature of the strategic planning process, which should include reviewing previous years' research outcomes, evaluating investment impacts, and incorporating the results of these activities in periodic updating of the strategy. Incorporation of feedback from constituent groups within the transportation community on the achievements and failures from previous planning cycles should be an essential part of this effort.

Recommendation 2. The current transportation S&T strategy should be strengthened in three major ways as the planning process moves forward.

2a. The proposed R&D activities should be prioritized. One of the most urgent and important steps to be taken in strengthening the strategy is to prioritize the proposed R&D activities, preferably in cooperation with a broad spectrum of constituent groups (see also 1b above). The committee finds it difficult to envisage how the strategy can emerge as a useful tool for guiding federal budget allocations (see 2b below) in the absence of established priorities. The transportation R&D portfolio should also be developed further to include schedules and milestones.

2b. The strategy should be explicitly linked to transportation R&D budget guidance. It is the committee's hope that the strategy will form the future basis for annual transportation R&D budget guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to the modal administrations within DOT and to other federal agencies. Without such budgetary influence, the strategy cannot survive as a useful planning tool.

2c. The linkages between the vision of a transportation system in 2020 and the proposed R&D agenda should be strengthened, and the role of R&D specific to individual modes should be better articulated. The vision statement developed by the NSTC Transportation R&D Committee calls for "a sustainable and seamless intermodal transportation system that effectively ties America together and links it to the world. This system will help citizens and businesses satisfy their needs by providing efficient, safe, secure, and environmentally friendly transportation of people and goods. It will result from a strengthened partnership among government, academia, and the private sector focused on effective management and renewal of existing infrastructure, strategic deployment of new technologies and infrastructure, and on R&D which supports each of these." The pathways from the present to the vision of the future are not apparent to the reader of the strategy document. In addition, R&D specific to individual modes should be more clearly identified as a component of the transportation R&D portfolio to avoid possible confusion, not only within DOT, but also at OSTP and OMB. Examples of ways in which the strategy might be strengthened and better linked to future transportation needs include increased emphasis on such topics as freight transportation to improve U.S. competitiveness worldwide; monitoring, repair, and life extension of the nation's aging infrastructure; integration of environmental and other goals; and intermodal requirements.

Recommendation 3. The implementation steps identified in the transportation S&T strategy, including a significant broadening of constituency participation, should be taken now to realize the most important benefits of a coordinated approach to R&D.

Development of the transportation S&T strategy has already resulted in benefits from increased communication among federal research managers. Nonetheless, the committee considers that the most important benefits of the strategy will come from its implementation-particularly through impacts on federal R&D funding allocations (see 2b above)-rather than from the planning process per se. Details regarding the assignment of goals, tasks, schedules, and resources to federal agencies and to the modal administrations within DOT need to be worked out and implemented. Although the committee did not review the proposed strategic partnership initiatives in depth, it agreed that the concept of such broad partnerships is a major strength of the strategy. In particular, the implementation of a variety of strategic partnerships with different combinations of participants offers the potential to expand and diversify the transportation research base by involving all the major constituent groups in the different phases of technological innovation. (See also 1a and 1b above.)

As with the strategic planning process, the full advantages of strategy implementation will be realized only if the diverse constituencies of the transportation industry are included. There needs to be increased recognition of the fact that most of the nation's transportation assets-both vehicles and infrastructure-are owned and operated by state, municipal, or private groups and individuals, not by the federal government. Implementation of an appropriate set of partnership initiatives, in collaboration with industry, academia, state departments of transportation, and other constituent groups, offers the possibility of developing and implementing new technologies in an expeditious manner and evaluating the overall outcomes of R&D for the transportation system.

Recommendation 4. DOT should develop its own integrated strategic plan for transportation R&D, including budget authority and appropriate management authority and responsibility at the agency level.

DOT's role as a leader in the transportation S&T strategic planning process would be enhanced if the agency had its own coordinated DOT-wide R&D agenda, linked to the nation's future transportation requirements. The committee therefore urges DOT to develop an integrated department-wide R&D strategic plan that pays attention to the development of an intermodal transportation system, but does not exclude programs specific to individual modes.

If DOT is to lead by example and demonstrate the advantages of an integrated transportation R&D strategic plan, the support of senior DOT management across the modal administrations is essential. A department-wide R&D strategic plan could result in increased communication, cooperation, and coordination among modal administrations and mutual benefits for their specific missions. Organizational changes, especially regarding budget and program authority, will probably be needed if such an integrated DOT-wide R&D strategic plan is to be implemented.

Summary and Conclusion

Among the general and specific recommendations and observations resulting from the committee's review and deliberations, two major points emerge:

The committee is pleased to have had the opportunity to provide feedback on the transportation S&T strategy at a sufficiently early stage for changes to be integrated as the strategy evolves, and hopes that its comments and recommendations prove useful. The committee would be receptive to continuing its involvement in the current initiative and would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you, members of the NSTC, Dr. Carey, or others its possible future role in support of the NSTC transportation R&D strategic planning process.


H. Norman Abramson
Chair, Committee on the Federal Transportation R&D Strategic Planning Process


cc: NSTC Transportation R&D Committee

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) is a unit of the National Research Council, which is the principal working arm of the
corporate institution that includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine