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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

For Research That Lives Beyond the Final Report, A New Tech Transfer Primer

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Transportation research can be complex, but it almost always has an uncomplicated purpose: to provide the foundation for tangible improvements for the people and businesses that rely on America’s airspace, pipelines, rails, roads, and waterways.

One place that transportation research shouldn’t end up? On a dusty shelf.

That’s why Volpe analysts and planners supporting the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology recently released a technology transfer primer that outlines how transportation agency leaders can make sure that research makes a real difference in the real world. 

The primer coalesces insights from in-depth tech transfer publications by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and provides a high-level game plan for agencies looking to proactively tackle tech transfer.

“One of the fun things about the primer is that under OST leadership, we really walked the talk,” said Matt Cuddy, a policy analyst at Volpe and one of the primer’s authors. “Working closely with tech transfer manager Santiago Navarro, we had reviews from staff at the Federal Highway Administration, TRB, and state DOTs, and from authors of the source papers. We did early stakeholder involvement so the primer would end up being useful to the people we want to use it.”

The release of the primer coincides with a budding awareness of the importance of tech transfer in transportation research. New highway funding legislation—the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act—emphasizes research that leads to performance results. The Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research Program, which Volpe supports, asks for tech transfer plans in its solicitations.

A Dedicated Coordinator—A Dedication to Tech Transfer

Transportation agency and organization leaders can use the primer as a guide for building a proactive tech transfer program. For a larger organization, the tech transfer process flows through a dedicated coordinator. For a smaller organization, a coordinator might do tech transfer along with other activities.

There are four key roles for a tech transfer coordinator, according to the primer:

  1. Understand Adopter Needs: Knowing the problems a potential adopter is trying to solve is the guiding principle behind tech transfer. Functional needs are what a technology does to solve a problem. For instance, a new traffic signal design should be better at managing traffic than an old design. Process needs include factors that can shape an adopter’s decision making, such as policies and laws.
  2. Understand the Technology: Fully understanding the technology is fundamental to effective tech transfer. How does the technology perform? What are its policy implications or requirements? The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration uses customized Technology Readiness Levels—a tech transfer score ranging from 1 to 9—to assess the maturity of its technologies.
  3. Address Barriers to Adoption: Process needs have to do with the implications technologies may have on laws, markets, policy, and society. Any process needs that the research can’t address become barriers to adoption. In this role, the coordinator takes steps to reduce barriers to adoption, which may include getting buy-in from organizational leaders and convincing adopters that a technology is more effective than what’s available.
  4. Communicate Value: Communication needs to happen throughout a research and development project, not only at the end. Tech transfer must engage a range of stakeholders. The primer authors suggest several communications activities appropriate for each phase of research and development, including identifying champions, publishing research alerts, and conducting showcases.

Pursuing a Holistic Tech Transfer Program

The core roles of a tech transfer coordinator feed the tech transfer process itself. As part of that process, an organization will create a tech transfer plan, engage stakeholders, secure resources, and execute the plan. Tech transfer can be successful if it is pursued throughout research and development, and successful tech transfer is the ultimate goal of transportation research.

“Some people think of tech transfer as the point where technology is handed over for the next phase of  development or rolled into practice,” Cuddy said. “The term ‘tech transfer’ can refer to that point, or it can refer to a collection of activities that get you there. An important theme in the primer is that tech transfer work needs to happen before research and development starts, while it’s going on, and after it’s finished.”

The tips and case studies in this primer are useful whether an organization already has a tech transfer program or is building one. Contact with questions not covered in the primer.

The T2 and R&D processes are parallel strategies for putting research into practice. The principles: understand adopter needs, address barriers to adoption, understand the technology, and communicate value.
R&D and T2: A parallel strategy for putting research into practice.
The silhouettes of two human heads filled with gears that are passing between the heads and intermingling, showing tech transfer