The Department of Transportation (DOT) funds research aimed at making the nation’s transportation system safer and more efficient. In FY 2019, DOT had a research budget of more than $1 billion. Currently, DOT funds almost 5,000 ongoing research activities.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, published on August 10, says DOT has taken steps to improve research collaboration across the department, helping reduce potentially wasteful duplication. However, GAO also found that DOT could improve its efforts by using additional leading practices, such as defining and monitoring progress toward long-term goals.
DOT uses a multistep, centralized process to prioritize and select research activities it will fund. DOT’s modal administrations—which focus on specific modes of transportation like air, rail, and highways—conduct and manage most of DOT’s research. The modal administrations GAO spoke to used a variety of methods to prioritize and select research, including soliciting stakeholders’ feedback on research needs. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R) is responsible for reviewing this proposed research to ensure alignment with DOT’s strategic plans and to prevent duplicative research efforts, as required by statute.
GAO found that DOT has multiple efforts to facilitate research collaboration both externally and internally, but in guidance to promote collaboration, OST-R did not incorporate all leading practices. Specifically, OST-R established topical-research working groups on 12 multimodal subject areas in October 2018 and issued accompanying guidance. This guidance incorporated some leading collaboration practices, such as directing working groups to identify leadership roles and relevant participants. However, the guidance did not incorporate two leading practices—defining and monitoring progress toward long-term outcomes and regularly updating and monitoring written agreements. Taking steps to ensure the working groups follow these practices could provide OST-R greater assurance that the groups coordinate their efforts effectively, better plan long-term research, and better position themselves to address future transportation challenges.
The watchdog determined that OST-R has taken some steps to help ensure that its public database on DOT-funded research projects (the Research Hub) contains complete and accurate information, as required by DOT’s data management policy; however, data reliability issues remained. For example, as of July 2019—the latest available data at the time of GAO’s analysis—36 percent of records in the database were missing research partners’ contact information, hindering the research community’s ability to obtain current project details.
GAO recommends that OST-R take steps to ensure the topical-research working groups follow all leading collaboration practices, and take additional steps to ensure the information in the Research Hub is complete and accurate. DOT concurred with GAO’s recommendations and has recently taken action to begin to address these, such as the creation of a topical-research working group and developing a department-wide performance management data system. In 2021, DOT will begin to assess and improve the data collection processes and accuracy of the external sources for the Research Hub.