Applied Research and Development
Applied research is the third type of knowledge essential to a standards-setting system. It is the only method short of actual experience for determining whether new technologies are actually feasible and reasonably effective. Such questions were prominent in all four case studies. The oxygen depletion sensor had a track record in Europe, and the question was whether the device would be as reliable with American fuels. Similarly, questions were raised about the effectiveness of using household smoke detectors in airplanes. In the grain elevator case, there was significant controversy over whether pneumatic dust control could achieve airbone dust levels below the lower explosive limit. And with woodstoves there were a surprising number of technical questions, including the extent to which catalytic combustors could minimize creosote production.
Some standards-setters in both sectors have the in-house capability to conduct such research. The FAA Technical Center is well respected by industry. So is the National Bureau of Standards, which conducts applied research under statutory agreements with several agencies, including the CPSC. On the private side, UL and AGA conduct applied research both for in-house purposes and under contract. NFPA also supports a limited fire safety research effort.
The case studies suggest, however, that government does a better job of generating the kind of applied research that can inform standards-setting. The NBS conducted numerous helpful studies on wood-burning appliances. Its study on wall pass-through systems, a major source of fires related to woodstoves, filled a gaping hole in the private standard. Experiments conducted at the NBS also convinced the CPSC of the reliability of the oxygen depletion sensor—something that AGA Labs was reluctant to admit. The FAA funds extensive research into aviation safety, including the investigation of hand-held fire extinguishers, prompting the president of a major airline to declare at a recent Flight Safety Foundation conference that "airlines and manufacturers rely on the government to do development and testing." There were only scattered instances of private research efforts connected with the case studies. Two airlines and a major airframe manufacturer conducted tests on Halon fire extinguishers. The other major research effort, considered a public relations ploy by some, was undertaken by the National Grain and Feed Association. In the woodstove case, however, the lack of private research was notable. Catalytic combustors, a possible method of reducing creosote formation, were not (and have not) been considered by UL because, as a UL engineer said, "Nobody [in the industry] wanted to spend the money."
Research is expensive and private organizations generally do not do it unless someone else pays. Some private groups simply have no resources. "ASTM is just a building with rooms and secretaries," quips a former CPSC commissioner. It relies on its members to bring to the standards-setting process any information about relevant research. NFPA does much the same. Committees do not have budgets; nor does NFPA at large conduct applied research to support its standards-setting activities.
Product certifiers are also reluctant to undertake research aimed at improving standards. This research can have the quality of a public good. If UL improves a standard through applied research, other testing labs might be able to capitalize on the expenditure. Since UL must ultimately pay for such research efforts through its certification fees, the organization is not likely to conduct research in those areas, like woodstoves, where it shares the certification market with other labs. According to a UL spokesman, however, woodstoves are unusual in this respect. "We are often a monopoly for all practical purposes."
The funding of public research depends on the politics of the budgetary process, but there is certainly the potential (realized in several of
the cases) to fund projects not likely to be done privately. Many research budgets have been cut on the public side, particularly at the CPSC, but there are also indications that funding might actually increase for the FAA. The need for more public research and information collection is discussed in the final chapter.