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Congressional science and technology capacity is stronger than you think

FILE – Sun shines on the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, Aug. 12, 2022. Negotiators have agreed to include more than $12 billion in Ukraine-related aid in a stopgap spending bill that would fund the federal government into mid-December. The package will also provide disaster assistance, including for Jackson, Mississippi, where improvements are needed to the city’s water treatment system. Also in the package is money to help households afford winter heating and to assist Afghans in resettling in the U.S. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Advances in science and technology can quickly become indispensable in our daily lives and to the nation as a whole. Congress needs reliable, timely information on topics related to science and technology as rapid developments increase complexity and affect the economy, national security and more. 

At the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), we have responded to this need by deepening our science and technology capabilities and tripling the size of our team dedicated to science, technology assessments and analytics (STAA) over the last three years.

In the wake of the collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, Matthew Mittelsteadt’s Nov. 16 article presented an outdated view of GAO’s capacity to support Congress on science and technology (S&T) issues. Mr. Mittelstead stated that GAO “lacks technical dedication,” “has only ever produced five AI-centric reports,” is “glacial” in its research and lacks a “robust corps of dedicated experts.” As GAO’s chief scientist and co-leader of the STAA team, I am proud of the work we do to meet Congress’s growing demand for information on the very topics Mr. Mittelsteadt describes.

Since STAA’s inception, we have rapidly and significantly expanded GAO’s capacity to provide Congress with timely and relevant foresight, oversight and insight on the most pressing issues of our time — including everything mentioned in Mr. Mittelsteadt’s article and much more. Here are the facts:

  • Large, dedicated expert staff. Since 2019, we have hired more than 140 interdisciplinary staff (including many with doctoral degrees in science or engineering) to develop a remarkably deep and broad congressional S&T talent pool.
  • Extensive committee support. We have worked with 23 congressional committees, testified 10 times on S&T issues and provided S&T support for 25 other GAO S&T related testimonies.
  • Reports on pressing S&T issues. We have issued 48 technology assessments and short-form explainers on S&T issues. Through these assessments, GAO has leveraged the expertise of 280 leading experts on topics such as blockchain, quantum computing, vaccine development, zero-trust architectures (ZTA) and deep fakes.
  • Expanding science work across GAO. We have provided engineering sciences insight for 78 GAO reports. Our work encompasses all sizes of federal programs, including those vital to our national security.

Our work portfolios run deep, and our long-standing focus on artificial intelligence (AI) work is no exception. Specifically,

  • In-depth AI technology assessment. We delivered holistic, authoritative and timely work (culminating in my testifying with other global leaders) in our first AI technology assessment, which explored the issues of its impact in cybersecurity, criminal justice, transportation and financial markets.
  • AI in health care. We have recently collaborated with the National Academy of Medicine on three AI-related technology assessments in health care — including drug development, care delivery and medical diagnostics.
  • AI Accountability Framework. We developed a first-of-its-kind AI Accountability Framework to help federal managers ensure accountable and responsible use of AI in government programs and processes. This framework was included in the White House’s guidance for all federal agencies, and is currently being used as the basis for a number of ongoing, agency-specific audits that are currently underway throughout GAO. One example is how the Department of Defense is making organizational changes to incorporate AI technology, an audit that relied on our team’s key contributions.
  • AI-focused congressional training sessions. We’ve hosted trainings on artificial intelligence oversight that have informed more than 500 congressional staff on this complex issue.

Looking beyond AI, we supported Congress with technical expertise throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing on our biologists, chemists, data scientists, public health specialists and many others, my team issued 21 COVID-related products on topics including infection disease modeling, social distancing, wastewater surveillance, vaccine safety and long COVID.

In the area of digital S&T, we do more than deliver high-quality policy analysis and oversight reports; we are also practitioners. Our Innovation Lab Innovation Lab is the only entity of its kind within the legislative branch, and has state-of-the-art capabilities to perform advanced analytics and leverage emerging technologies. We’ve provided technical consulting to deliver oversight dashboards, digital products, policy simulators and experimental prototypes involving AI, blockchain, zero-trust architecture and extended reality, among others, to discover how these technologies may help address oversight-related challenges. We have also offered trainings for hill staff on blockchain technology and its uses.

We appreciate Mr. Mittelsteadt’s noting that “in the past five years, the GAO returned a remarkable $158 for every dollar budgeted.” The STAA team I co-lead will continue to evolve and adapt to the 21st century needs of Congress as it wrestles with the dynamic opportunities and challenges brought about by S&T. 

Tim Persons, Ph.D., is the Government Accountability Office’s chief scientist and managing director of science, technology assessment and analytics (STAA).

Tags FTX GAO Government Accountability Office government oversight government waste Science and technology

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