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As the GAO celebrates its centennial, the director of its science and technology arm shares highlights of the unit’s work

by Karen L. Howard, a director in the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team at the US Government Accountability Office.
June 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 24


This is a guest editorial by Karen L. Howard, a director in the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team at the US Government Accountability Office.

It was 1921. Biochemist Elmer McCollum identified a component in cod-liver oil that cured rickets, and he called it vitamin D. That same year, President Warren G. Harding signed a law creating what is known today as the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Science and the government have come far in the past century. New scientific and technological capabilities have changed the lives of every American. All the while, the GAO has provided Congress with fact-based, nonpartisan information to improve government programs and save taxpayers billions of dollars. In 2020 alone, the GAO had a return on investment of $77.6 billion, saving the federal government $114 for every dollar it invested in the agency.

Over the years, the GAO has worked to make science and technology a priority. Established as a legislative agency aimed at auditing government spending, the GAO broadened its portfolio in the 1960s to include performance audits and, in the 1970s, began recruiting scientists and other experts in fields such as health care, public policy, and computer science. By 2002, Congress asked the GAO to begin producing technology assessments on a pilot basis before making the role permanent in 2008. Today, the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team provides Congress with more than audit reports; we analyze scientific and technological developments and present policy makers with clear, concise options to consider in light of these developments—options that can effect change.

In the STAA team’s testimony to ­Congress in July 2019, for instance, we took a closer look at the chemical industry, and drawing on our sustainability chemistry report, we identified options to make sustainable chemical processes and products a priority. Because of this work, Congress enacted legislation directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy to convene an interagency entity responsible for coordinating federal programs and activities in support of sustainable chemistry. In another example, STAA’s study of 5G wireless networks revealed that these networks require a greater share of the radio-frequency spectrum—a scarce resource. To address this, we provided options such as promoting research into advanced spectrum-sharing technologies.

Developing policy options like these takes STAA’s research one step further: looking not just at the innovations themselves but at their impact on the local, state, and national levels. These two examples only hint at the breadth of STAA’s portfolio, which spans topics as varied as vaccine development, artificial intelligence, water quality, and air cargo screening.

In addition, STAA also publishes performance audits, which help Congress better understand the management of science- and technology-focused agencies, programs, or projects. In a recent audit, our team examined how the National Institutes of Health licenses its intellectual property to private companies and the steps it can take to make the process more transparent. The STAA team also developed a two-page report, or Spotlight, to help policy makers keep pace with the rapidly evolving field of science and technology. In a recent Spotlight, we took a closer look at the technologies used to identify chemical warfare agents such as Novichok. With governments suspected of using chemical weapons despite international prohibitions, this work provides timely information that could help nations better defend against future attacks.

Our work is only as useful as the change it generates. And we are working with experts on cutting-edge reports to make that change, for Congress and for the American people. As advances in science and technology continue at a breathtaking pace, nonpartisan scientific analysis and support for Congress will be essential today, tomorrow, and for the century to come.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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