In Noticias

Today, both NCHRP and TCRP include IDEA programs, but the IDEA concept is a legacy of the first SHRP [Strategic Highway Research Program]. To balance SHRP’s highly prescribed research program that left little to chance, 2 percent of its funding went to small-scale investments in research projects solicited through an open competition. Although limited to proposals that targeted the four SHRP research areas, SHRP-IDEA encouraged imagination and risk taking and even funded projects that were still in the concept development stage. In 4 years, SHRP-IDEA reviewed 400 proposals and funded 40. SHRP’s sponsors discovered that the program attracted a broad set of researchers and disciplines to transportation research. Could the secret to stronger pavements be in dental adhesives? Could arctic fish teach us better snow and ice control? SHRP-IDEA had opened an avenue that encouraged inventive and unusual approaches to transportation problems. [1]

In 1993, as SHRP wound down, FHWA and AASHTO arranged to integrate IDEA into NCHRP, and TCRP adopted a similar IDEA program. Over the years, the IDEA model has also lent itself to short-term research programs, including for intelligent transportation systems, SHRP 2’s reliability objective, and high-speed rail. IDEA programs help innovators develop concepts and prototypes, and they can act as matchmakers between inventors and transportation agencies willing to field test their products. Although IDEA programs favor high-risk, big-leap types of ideas, an NCHRP-IDEA assessment in 2015 found that over the program’s lifetime, 40 percent of its projects had either been adopted or had a high potential for implementation. [2]

A bridge beam that weighs one-tenth of a typical precast concrete beam, steel that does not corrode, ultraviolet light that kills germs in the air conditioners on buses, automatic warning systems for rail work zones—IDEA seed money helped all find success. Project ideas come from universities, state DOTs, and transit agencies, and also small engineering firms and individuals such as Gary Rayner. IDEA funded his DriveCAM incident video recording system in 1999, long before cameras were a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Rayner’s product, which came packaged with software to manage fleets and encourage safe driving, went on to be adopted by more than 1,000 enterprises in the business of everything from garbage pickup to public buses to long-distance trucking. IDEA programs also continue to attract innovators from outside of transportation, such as researchers at medical schools who have devised better ways to make wheelchair users safe and comfortable on transit vehicles. [3]

In addition, IDEA has offered another way for TRB to first attract volunteers. “The NCHRP IDEA program was my first exposure to the NCHRP program and to TRB,” wrote Susan Martinovich, who served a year as AASHTO president while director of Nevada Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2011. When so much of research reacts to existing problems, she grew to strongly support NCHRP’s IDEA program because “research should also be proactive and look for views and opinions outside of the normal way of doing business.” Through the IDEA programs managed by TRB, participants on AASHTO’s research committees and on the other IDEA committees can maintain continuous contact with the world of cutting-edge innovation.[4]

*This article is excerpted from The Transportation Research Board, 1920-2020: Everyone Interested Is Invited by Sarah Jo Peterson, Copyright 2020.

1 – Damian Kulash, Interview with author, December 12, 2017; “Innovative Research: The SHRP-IDEA Program,”
TR News, November 1991, 17–19; K. Thirumalai, “SHRP-IDEA Program: Successful Activity to Have Wider Focus at TRB,” TR News, May 1993, 6–9.
2 – Thirumalai, “SHRP-IDEA Program,” 6–9; Harvey Berlin, et al., “TRB’s IDEA Programs Turn 20,” TR News, November–December 2012, 20–26; NCHRP IDEA Program: Products with an Impact or Potential Impact on Current Highway Practice (TRB, 2015).
3 – Berlin, “TRB’s IDEA Programs Turn 20,” 20–26; TCRP, Annual Report of Progress, 2017.
4 – NCHRP IDEA Program, ii.

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