The Last Word: Importance of Verification, Validation and Peer-Review

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John Matthews

Matthews

One of the most exciting aspects of the trenchless technology industry is the continual innovation in technology, material and process development, which keeps our industry on the cutting edge. Manufacturers, contractors, researchers and utilities are always looking for improved methods and materials, which is what led to our industry to begin with and it continues to be what pushes the envelope forward.

As technologies and methods are initiated, there is a period after proof-of-concept when things have to be taken into the field to see what will and won’t work in the ‘real world.’ This period exists for all new technology and will inevitably result in many failures, but more importantly lessons learned. After a period of optimization, it may seem like it’s ready for prime-time, but a key remaining step before adoption is verification. This is a key step in widespread adoption of innovative technology as few utilities are typically willing to serve as the first to try unverified methods or materials. This conundrum can be hard to overcome by developers since it’s hard to validate something if you are not given the chance. However, the opportunity for pilots and demonstrations are critical to expanding the acceptance of new techniques.

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It’s also critical at that time that independent evaluations be undertaken to verify claims, benefits and limitations. There is no single entity or funding source available for performing these evaluations, so over the years many different organizations have contributed to independent evaluations including: local utilities and associations; state and federal government organizations such as the EPA; and universities and consultants. Though different methods of verification can be employed, the important goal is that independent verifications provide non-biased information about new technology and its most appropriate application. Without verification, we would be forced to rely on unsubstantiated claims, which would result in riskier installations.

After technologies and methods become accepted, there is still an important need to conduct validations on our projects. Any trenchless project is built according to specifications and the contractor is typically allowed the opportunity to select the means and methods it will use to meet those specs. It is incumbent on the project owner or their representative to validate that the specs are being met though inspections and some type of Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) program. As with most construction work, inspectors play a key role on trenchless projects to help ensure that quality installations have taken place. These inspectors must be properly trained and familiar with the project specs to be effective. Moreover, in many cases QC samples should be collected so that independent QC testing can be used to validate the final parameters of installed materials. Without these steps, we would not know if we got what we paid for, which would result premature failures.

Finally, even if independent verifications and validations take place, there is also a need to truth test the results we receive, which is commonly referred to as peer-review. In the engineering academic world, peer-review is an essential task to ensure research is repeatable and truthful. In fact, most researchers are judged, at least partly, on their ability to publish research in high-quality, peer-reviewed journals. This is a critical aspect of the tenure and promotion process for university professors. Although investigators are given the flexibility to pursue controversial research independent of oversight, the peer-review process becomes the opportunity to truth test the results if you desire to publish and continue to advance in your chosen profession and field.

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One issue that can arise however, is other academic researchers typically serve as the peer-reviewers, and though they may be well versed in research methods, many might lack the practical knowledge to evaluate the applicability of the research to the ‘real world.’

Luckily, the trenchless industry has many practitioners that serve as volunteer journal peer-reviewers, though we always need more. This ensures the practicality of the research being published in our most commonly read and cited journals. However, there are numerous journals where research applicable to the trenchless industry could be published, and in more cases than not, those peer-reviewers lack the practical knowledge of proper trenchless applications and practices, which could result in poor feedback and conclusions, even within high-quality journals. Without proper peer-review, research that may have widespread implications for our industry will continue to be published, which could result in wild misunderstandings related to the application and safety of trenchless technology.

John C. Matthews is the director of the Trenchless Technology Center (TTC) at Louisiana Tech University.

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