Consider for a moment light bulbs, plastic and transportation. An unusual mix, but they share two important common characteristics.
Each, in some way, impacts every day of our lives, to the point that we can scarcely imagine doing without them. And each evolved from crude beginnings, with the original idea bearing little resemblance to what we know and use today. That’s true because of research.
Research is the reason light bulb filaments burn for hundreds of hours instead of just a few hours, as they did in 1878. Research is the reason “Parkesine” evolved from a primitive, heated and molded rough material to become the plastic we now use for everything from food wrap to medical supplies. And research is the reason transportation is safer, smoother and more cost-efficient than it’s ever been.
The transportation system in America has long been the envy of many nations, but it didn’t turn out that way by chance. It turned out that way because industry leaders knew decades ago that our system would require constant improvements to serve society’s changing needs. They made these improvements through a sustained investment in research and innovation, and the return on that investment has been substantial.
- Refined pavement mixtures help ensure that roadways last longer, which is critical at a time when rising construction and maintenance costs collide with shrinking revenues, creating a perfect financial storm.
- Technology applications make freeway operations increasingly more efficient, saving time for motorists, ensuring more reliable delivery times for shippers and shortening response times for emergency workers.
- Improved guardrail designs now allow drivers and passengers to walk away from crashes that would have been fatal less than a decade ago.
These and countless other scientific success stories have saved untold lives, time and money, but they’ve done so in relative obscurity. That’s largely because the research process, in all its complexity, doesn’t typically involve much fanfare.
Simply put, it goes like this: Identify a problem, find the best practical solution, implement the solution and go on to the next problem. No front page headlines. No TV ads on Super Bowl Sunday. Just do the job. As the saying goes, lightning leaves the credit for the thunder.
Given the staggering transportation challenges we face in the years and decades ahead, our job of problem solving has never been more important. Roads and bridges are aging. Resources are shrinking in the face of growing demand. Our population is booming, especially in already congested urban areas.
These and many more issues leave us faced with very serious questions. How can we continue to provide a transportation system that is safe and efficient, and do so within limited financial resources? How will future energy supplies affect our mobility and the system that makes that mobility possible? How do we ensure that our system supports our economy in a way that protects our position of leadership, locally, regionally and in a fiercely competitive global marketplace?
We don’t yet know the answers, but we do know that the right approach must include sustained, robust research. It’s a familiar and proven approach, the same one that gave us better ways to light our homes, preserve our food and move about more quickly and safely. All of these improvements resulted from a process of almost constant innovation through research.
To be sure, innovation has its price. But so does the absence of innovation — and that’s a price we simply cannot afford to pay.