How can you innovate without research?



Yesterday I went down to Google HQ to see Secretary Foxx hold a fireside chat with Erich Schmidt to discuss DOT’s new 30-year plan Beyond Traffic.  I’ve never been to an event like this before, and it seemed the audience was industry more than the usual transportation wonks (though we were there).  There was a very active back channel on #BeyondTraffic on Twitter, connecting people in the room to those watching it online.

Foxx discussed the funding issues, MAP-21 won’t lasts much longer and in the last 6 years Congress has passed 32 short-term measures to extend funding because they can’t actually pass long-term funding.  Yesterday Foxx announced the White House’s ambitious $94.7 billion transportation investment plan.  I’m not holding my breath.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we get back down to the wire in May when the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money. That’s politics. (This is also something I know the general public, like Eric Schmidt, doesn’t know a whole lot about but it’s vital.)

The whole Beyond Traffic blue paper is also politics: bold proclamations, neat infographics, but light on the details. Foxx hit most of the high points that appealed to the Silicon Valley crowd – UAVs and connected/autonomous vehicles, and regulations for them. I did appreciate that Foxx said that promoting multimodal transportation system is about providing choices for people. He also stressed the important of land-use on transportation, which is hugely important in sustainability. (Which also lead to Schmidt extolling the success of Google buses, ignoring their role in perpetuating terrible land-use patterns in the Bay Area.) Bike/ped stuff was largely absent from the discussion.

Also largely absent was talking about research.

Research is inherent to all of these innovations. How do you improve and develop new practices without it? The problem is that funding allocated to research keeps dwindling. Politicians want to fund highways, (and maybe) rail, self-driving cars, but not the research and required research infrastructure to get there. Which is why we have to constantly advocate for communicating the value of research when it should be self evident.

So I asked Foxx about this, about funding research and the required data and IT infrastructure to facilitate collaboration across modes. He replied like a true politician, that DOT is “bullish” about research despite funding cuts, and it’s still a priority. Not really an answer but as much as he could give. I mostly asked the question because I wanted to make sure it got on record that people do care about research funding (namely people working for research bodies) and to make sure there was at least some women represented in the question queue. (Two out of ten or so? That’s pretty shabby, but also another blog post.) Judging from the response of many of my colleagues on Twitter, they appreciated having the issue elevated.

Transportation has some unique funding issues, such as the failure and inability to raise the gas tax to sustainable funding levels, but this issue of funding research is happening across disciplines. Money talks and subject that can garner private sector investment, such as self-driving cars (hey Uber and CMU!), but what about topics that aren’t financially lucrative but no less important, such as rural transit? And what about paying for the infrastructure to conduct research, such as data centers and libraries? We have to constantly advocate and push for our cause even though the immediate ROI might not be evident. This new funding model and philosophy is very pragmatic, but also pretty short sighted. Which is why I’m worried about these long range 30-year plans. Research programs and libraries have helped have that long view and memory to make sure we progress effectively and don’t duplicate efforts, but nobody wants to pay for it. I don’t think Beyond Traffic alone is going to change that.

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