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Movers And Shakers

Meet the group providing science and technology information to the US Congress

The Government Accountability Office aims to improve quality, timeliness of reports on emerging disruptive technologies

by Britt E. Erickson
September 17, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 37

Photo of Tim Persons seated at a table and speaking into a microphone.
Credit: Courtesy of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
GAO chief scientist Timothy Persons (left) testified at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on July 25.

Rapidly emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and gene editing, may disrupt our world in both positive and negative ways. When US lawmakers have questions about how such technologies could affect society, the environment, or the economy, they often turn to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). Best known for auditing and investigating federal government programs, the agency also plays an increasingly important role in technology assessment.


The GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team

Established: January 2019

Mission: Provide analyses of emerging science and technologies for the US Congress

Managing directors: Timothy Persons and John Neumann

Full-time staff: 70; plans to increase to 140 over the next few years

Areas of expected growth: Genome editing, artificial intelligence and automation, quantum information science, brain-technology interfaces and augmented reality, cryptocurrencies and blockchain

Partnerships: Three for technology assessments on artificial intelligence in health care, with panels of experts to be assembled by the National Academy of Medicine; two external advisory boards to help identify emerging technologies and peer-review technology assessments

The GAO has been providing Congress with nonpartisan analyses of emerging science and technology issues since 2002. The need for such analyses is growing as lawmakers grapple with the privacy, security, and safety implications of a plethora of disruptive technologies. The work also helps inform policy decisions related to federal investments in R&D and advanced manufacturing initiatives aimed at boosting US economic competitiveness.

Earlier this year, the GAO announced plans to double its science and technology workforce over the next few years to better meet the needs of Congress and the federal government. The agency also consolidated its science and technology work into one group—the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team.

The new team combines the GAO’s expertise in auditing federal science and technology programs with the agency’s ability to conduct forward-looking assessments of emerging technologies, says Timothy Persons, a managing director of the STAA team and the GAO’s chief scientist. The STAA team will also compile best practices in the engineering sciences and investigate advanced analytic capabilities to improve how the GAO audits federal agencies and programs, says Persons, who has a PhD in biomedical engineering. The group’s work is best summarized as the “oversight, insight, and foresight business for all things science and technology,” he says.

Foresight comes into play in the team’s technology assessment work, Persons explains. “We are changing the conversation” from being reactive to informing lawmakers prospectively about the pros and cons of emerging technologies, he adds.

The GAO takes requests for technology assessments from members of any congressional committee or subcommittee that has jurisdiction over a particular topic, either from the House of Representatives or the Senate. Requests come from the full range of the political spectrum, says Karen Howard, assistant director of physical sciences at the GAO.

For example, at the request of three senators—two Democrats and one Republican—the GAO recently evaluated technologies designed to make chemical manufacturing more sustainable. The lawmakers asked the agency to investigate what technologies are available and how mature and widely used they are, says Howard, who has a PhD in environmental chemistry.

To keep the scope of the report manageable, the GAO reported on three main areas: catalysts, solvents, and continuous processing, Howard says. For catalysts, the team evaluated replacing rare metals, such as platinum and palladium, with abundant metals, such as iron and nickel, she notes. They also examined the potential of biocatalysts such as enzymes to replace the “somewhat toxic and very rare metals that are currently the top choices for catalysts,” Howard says.

With respect to solvents, the GAO evaluated biobased solvents, which are from sources other than petroleum, and solvents that are not volatile organic compounds, Howard says. The agency also examined technologies that don’t use solvents or that “dramatically reduce the amount of solvents required for various processes,” she adds. Solvents are the number one category of chemical input by volume, and they constitute a large proportion of the waste stream. “If we could do something about solvents to make them more sustainable, that would go a long way toward improving the sustainability of the industry as a whole,” Howard says. Overall, the GAO found that the chemical industry can reduce solvent and energy use by shifting from batch processing to continuous processing, she notes.

One of the main conclusions of the report is that every chemical company defines sustainability differently, Howard says. They share some goals, such as trying to reduce the toxicity of starting materials, end products, and waste products. But they don’t agree on things like energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, the physical footprint of a plant, or the renewability of feedstocks, she says. “Each company can decide for itself which factors it thinks are most important,” she says.

That variability leaves consumers wondering what “certified more sustainable” means on product labels. Until all stakeholders agree on what sustainability means and how to measure it, “there will be continuing uncertainty and inability for the end users to determine which things are more sustainable than others,” Howard says.

Although senators initially requested the sustainable chemistry report, it became the center of discussion at a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in late July. The hearing focused on building support for the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2019 (H.R. 2051), legislation that would establish a coordinated effort across the US federal government to define sustainable chemistry and support R&D of sustainable chemistry processes. The GAO’s Persons testified at the hearing about technologies that make chemical manufacturing more sustainable and enhance US innovation and competitiveness.

Congress is in dire need of technical information such as that being provided by the GAO’s STAA team, but the effort is unlikely to provide answers to some of the most important questions, says Richard Sclove, founder and senior fellow at the Loka Institute, an activist think tank that investigates the ethical, social, and political repercussions of emerging technologies. The GAO’s technology assessments are “grossly insufficient” because they omit such information, he says.

The STAA team is currently assessing the technical aspects of emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence in drug discovery and development. The group is also preparing a two-page explainer on vaccines for opioid addiction to provide lawmakers with a better understanding of “what are they, how they work, and how they might complement other therapies that are already available for opioid addictions and other disorders,” Howard says.

Looking further ahead, lawmakers are interested in blockchain technology, or digital ledgers for authentication and supply chain management, Persons says. Possible applications include tracking food and pharmaceutical ingredients.

The pace of technological change is faster than ever, and Congress wants answers under tight deadlines. To meet those requests, the STAA team is working with two external advisory boards: one to help anticipate emerging technologies, and another to peer-review assessments. The STAA group is also forming partnerships with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to tackle topics such as artificial intelligence in health care. Ultimately, the GAO hopes that such partnerships will enhance the turnaround time and quality of its analyses.

“Technology assessment is not a new thing for us,” Persons says. But the GAO is not known for such work at a large scale. With the new team in place, “that is changing,” he says.


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