The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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From the Director

by Dave Clarke, P.E.

Fall is officially here, and winter is right around the corner. The leaves are falling from the trees and Mother Nature has sent us an early blast of Arctic air. With almost two weeks to go until Thanksgiving, much of Tennessee has already seen its first snowfall (with more on the way). It's time to get those chores done to be ready for winter!

My thoughts in this column focus on technology transfer and implementation. Universities around the country, including my own, do a lot of research on behalf of highway agencies, mostly those at the federal and state level. The intent of this research is to address specific problems, with the ultimate objective of improving materials, designs, and processes related to roads and streets. Not every research project results in a product - it often takes a number of projects, each advancing the understanding of a problem - to do so. However, once a product results, it does no good if it isn't deployed. That's where technology transfer comes into play.

One difficulty in technology transfer is simply getting the message out to the practitioner. It may disappoint my academic peers, but not many highway agency managers or engineers read the scholarly journals in which we publish research findings. Research results need to be disseminated through trade journal articles, webinars, workshops, product demonstrations, and other means that directly target the potential end user. The Federal Highway Administration Resource Center actively promotes technologies resulting from research, and its web site, www.fhwa.dot.gov/resourcecenter/ should be in every roadway agency's bookmarks. TTAP works closely with this center.

I'm an engineer myself, and I think it's safe to say that, as a group, engineers tend to be conservative about adopting new ideas. We bind ourselves in standards, specifications, recommended practices, regulations, guidelines, etc. that provide a level of comfort and protection from risk. Face it - being a pioneer in any area entails some chance that things will go awry. We put both our reputation and our employer or client's money on the line. Failures can be embarrassing and even job threatening. So, the thought goes, let someone else be the risk taker. That's one barrier to technology transfer. If a research result doesn't get incorporated into a specification, recommended practice, or guideline, it probably won't get implemented.

Capacity is another issue that affects technology implementation. By capacity, I mean individuals or firms with knowledge, experience, and equipment to deploy the technology. For example, a simple innovation like the Safety Edge requires contractors to have pavers equipped with the system. Without clients that demand the system, contractors are unlikely to modify their equipment. Highway agencies, on the other hand, are often reluctant to dictate that the contractor community change accepted practice. Breaking this chicken-and-egg situation requires a champion willing to advocate the new approach. Such a champion can encourage the broader community to adopt the new way.

That's it for now. As always, if we can help, please don't hesitate to call or email. TTAP looks forward to assisting you. Be safe!


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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Big Orange. Big Ideas.

Knoxville, Tennessee 37996 | 865-974-1000
The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System