Most of our YPT friends and members should be familiar with the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies. Our guest today, Robert Skinner, has been the Executive Director of TRB since 1994. Mr. Skinner graciously gave us his time and insights into the challenges of championing transportation research for twenty years in a largely volunteer based non-profit organization.
AP: What’s been the biggest challenge over the last 20 years in keeping TRB relevant?
RS: TRB is an unusual organization in that it does a variety of things. It’s best known for activities that are sort of like a professional society, albeit one that crosses disciplinary lines and really doesn’t require credentials. Basically, you have to show up to participate and we don’t ask to see your degrees before you start. That part of TRB includes the annual meetings, bibliographic databases, standing committees, peer reviewed journals, and a variety of other publications. The support for that activity is spread amongst a variety of groups including all the state DOTs, a variety of federal agencies, with FHWA being the largest and oldest federal sponsor. There are also some private sponsors like Association of American Railroads and American Trucking Association. There are a lot of folks that are supporting these research activities, which is inherently good in the long term. The benefits are not necessarily realized in the short term by any individual or group, but over the long term, they benefit society at large through fostering innovation. It’s a challenge, of course, to keep the new leaders of all those organizations informed about this activity and to make the case that it’s worth continuing. That challenge is always there – to explain what TRB is about and why the support that their organization has been providing is worthwhile to them and to society at large.
AP: Even with for-profit business enterprises, traditional R&D groups have a hard time justifying additional expenditures even though they’re at the forefront of future growth and profits. They struggle to maintain their budgets.
RS: It’s common knowledge that infrastructure maintenance suffers when times get tough financially, but in reality, research suffers even more when time gets tough. For understandable reasons, research is not the number one or two thing on an agency head’s agenda. Many of them do appreciate innovation and appreciate that it’s the key to them delivering things that are better, quicker, and more cost-effective. It’s not as though the case is all that difficult to make, but it does require constant effort to make the case.
AP: In your time as an Executive Director, was there a skill that you really had to work on when you first came to TRB? In the last 5 to 10 years has that changed at all? Have you had to learn new skills to remain relevant in the position or to improve your effectiveness in your position?
RS: I think the skills that are required for a position like this are, in broad terms, kind of obvious. You have to be willing to work with people and be comfortable with working for people, while being a spokesperson for your organization. You also have to provide leadership, not micromanage, and be knowledgeable enough to provide useful direction for the group’s activities. Finances are inevitably a big part of any organization. Here at TRB, which is housed within the National Academies, we pay close attention to quality control. There’s a lot of stuff that’s fairly dull and behind the scenes that people don’t see. They tend to see the public decisions. You also have to be comfortable being that external face of the organization. I don’t think of it so much as skills that had to be developed, but experiences that you had to have. When you take a new job, it’s that first time you have a board meeting, the first time you make a pitch to a certain set of sponsors about your program or justifying the program, or the first time you deal with someone who is unhappy with some aspect of your organization, such as a committee member who didn’t like the outcome of his study.
AP: Has your decision making process changed over time? Is it still fundamentally the same? What is it?
RS: I suppose it’s not so much the process but the individual decisions that had to be made. One of the things that characterizes our organization, both TRB and other parts of the National Academies, is the reliance on expert groups. Studies are done by expert groups. We have volunteer committees that are responsible for a lot of the work that TRB does. There are panels that oversee virtually all of the cooperative research projects we sponsor. We also have the National Academies committees that provide guidance and management oversight. There’s a governing board for the National Research Council that oversees TRB and the other 5 major units. When you think about decision making, it’s not often an individual process but instead a collective process in which you’re working with groups of folks that are outside volunteer experts. It’s a little bit different from me sitting in my office and making a decision. It’s important that you become comfortable working with those groups. What’s the right type of question to ask, the right level of information to provide, and the like? I wouldn’t say that all the decisions are made that way, because lots of things need to be done at an executive level; however, we do rely a lot on the TRB executive committee for guidance in regards to how we run our programs. We rely on volunteers for our cooperative research programs to make decisions and oversight, and the Academies’ governing board provides another layer of oversight. People in a corporate setting are used to dealing with a Board of Directors, but that board in many cases is the one and only layer of outside involvement. TRB has many layers of outside involvement.
AP: You came from the private sector before?
RS: I was a consultant for 12 years before I first came to TRB.
AP: In your experience what’s been the difference between working with people who are essentially paid for their effort versus dealing with so many volunteers at TRB? Do you find it difficult to motivate volunteers? Or are TRB volunteers a special group?
RS: Both are true. When I was a consultant, typically I was working for some client, but often a client that was plural, with a committee or board or group of people who you were reporting to. When I first came to TRB, I was a policy director doing policy work. The committee I was working with was roughly analogous to my public sector client experience. It was true that the report was going to come out in their name, but my assistance was required to get that report researched and written. That was my initial experience working with volunteers here at TRB. But once you’ve done some studies and worked with that model, it’s fairly easy to transition to other volunteer committees – whether it’s the standing committees who are providing info to their constituencies and organizing national meeting sessions or the panels who are overseeing cooperative research projects and the like. Projects like SHRP2 [the Strategic Highway Research Program 2] where you have additional volunteer committees. I found that consulting was a pretty good basis for making that transition.
AP: In your career, making these transitions from consultant to policy director to executive director, did you have any mentors along the way? How did they inspire you?
RS: Sure, I had lots of mentors, and still do. I think anyone who is attentive to what’s going on around them will see characteristics of individuals and other professionals they work with that they want to emulate. When I first got started in consulting, I worked for Alan Voorhees and Associates. I worked with Jim Watt, a longtime consultant who was very helpful early, and Dave Hensing, who later became the Deputy Director of AASHTO for many years. The single greatest mentor has been Tom Deen, who was the President of Alan Voorhees and then came to TRB to be the Executive Director. He was my immediate predecessor, and he was here for a number of years. I got to learn from him in consulting and later here at TRB, so I observed all his career transitions. I still see people that I’ve worked with all through my career. This is a fabulous area to be involved with, in part because of the quality of the individuals that you get to work with. I still see old colleagues that I worked with that I can pick up many tips from given their experiences.
AP: Any one piece of advice that you still remember to this day and that you would like to pass on that came from someone else?
RS: No single piece, but a lot that have to do with preparation. Anticipating how a conversation or meeting will go and being prepared for directions that you may hope they don’t take but nonetheless you’re prepared for it. You have information available to you. The skill that we all develop over time, but is not there at the outset, is trying to be able to understand the dynamics of meetings. Picking up those subtle cues in terms of who is happy, who is resonating with your message, and who’s not. Those are not exactly things that people give you advice on directly, but are things that you pick up over time, and you get to watch people who are masters at leading meetings and chairing meetings. Watching them work, you can pick up some of that on your own.
AP: That’s the emotional intelligence of being self aware and aware of others. Knowing how to build consensus.
RS: That’s right. Some people just naturally do that. They have a very disarming style even when they deal with something that is laden with controversy. I’m still working on that one.
AP: If you’re not growing, you’re dying. There’s always something to work on.
RS: That’s right. Although one of the things that people under-appreciate is how hard you have to work just to stay in place and do basic maintenance. All your energy is not about climbing up to the next rung or getting the next sponsor or getting the next study. To just keep the program that you already have afloat, working efficiently, keeping those sponsors happy, that’s a substantial effort and a worthy goal in its own right. You certainly see people whose careers are built with multiple steps. They’ve changed their jobs frequently and you wonder if they’ve stayed around long enough to deal with the long term consequences of their actions. TRB’s job one is to keep everything together, to keep what you have, the critical mass of activities.
AP: A lot of people can pitch, but very few can follow through. In trying to keep operations humming and make all those people happy, if I were to give you a magic wand, what’s one thing that you would do to fix any pain points you have? Whatever’s the most pressing issue for TRB that you’d love to fix that you can’t without a magic wand?
RS: I would love to give higher visibility to researchers and research managers in transportation. For reasons that we discussed earlier, it’s difficult to do. It’s understandable why their relative stature is what it is; nonetheless a lot more good things would happen, at least in my world, if research received more attention than it does. When I say research, I don’t mean research for the sake of research, but research as part of the innovation process.
AP: A lot of technology companies are moving into the transportation space. IBM with Smarter Planet, Xerox with its Transport Division, Cisco with the Internet of Things, Google and Driverless Cars. Has TRB been approached or are they working with any high technology firms?
RS: Those folks are involved in TRB activities to a degree. I wouldn’t say that they constitute a major part of participation at the TRB Annual Meeting. Those folks are lightly represented. If you try to go to the place you can learn most quickly, the TRB Annual Meeting is the place where people who are tapping in go. Over time, TRB is an organization that, in some respects, wants to lead in the innovation process, but to a certain extent, some of our activities really reflect where things are going right now. If you look at the portfolio of standing committees, it’s been about 200 committees for 20 years now, but those 200 committees have changed in some obvious ways, some have sunset, others have come online, and often committees reinvent themselves through incremental changes in the scope of their activities. You see that what some people would call Smart Technologies or ITS applications are a bigger piece of more committees today than they would have been years ago.
AP: Last question. Besides the obvious answer of funding, what do you see as the most pressing issue facing transportation in the next 5 years?
RS: I’m glad you said “besides funding.” I think it’s trying to figure out, and then to stay on, a “no-regrets” path to changing our mix of energy and lessening our adverse environmental impacts in the transportation field. To me, we’ve been concerned with energy and environmental issues throughout the duration of my career. Energy today is probably getting more attention than ever before, perhaps with the exception of the oil embargoes of the 1970s. It’s still up in the air; it’s not conclusive how we’re going to proceed. It’s intermixed with our conceptions of how urban America should develop or redevelop, how we should conduct inner city travel, and how we should do all those things in a balanced way with the environment, our lifestyle, and consumption more generally. Probably 5 years is kind of a short time frame. Things may not change that much in the next 5 years, but if you think over the next 15 years, by then we’ll start making some potentially profound changes in the fuel mix we use for private vehicles. For example, natural gas for trains in lieu of diesel. How we deal with network issues. Do we build a HSR network or not? Will we have incremental rail, and if so where and how? How are freight demands going to shift in that timeframe? How are we going to adjust our network in a way that promotes energy conservation and environmental quality?
AP: Hopefully, that focus on the transportation energy mix problem will remain, and other emergencies won’t interrupt the focus on the solution to that problem, I hope for myself and my children. I’m sure TRB will be a big part of that solution. I want to thank you immensely for your time.
RS: hanks very much. I enjoyed talking with you. It’s always nice to chat about these kinds of topics and to pontificate.
Arthur Pazdan is a transportation geek, attempted polymath, and humbled surfer. When he’s not paddling out, you can find him at fine coffee purveyors across the San Francisco Bay Area, dreaming of ways to bring our crumbling infrastructure into the 21st century. Flying cars, here we come. @arthurpazdan Arthur Pazdan on LinkedIn