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Studying Science Today and Impacting Policy Tomorrow

Posted on July 08, 2021

Advancements in science and technology are shaping our lives every day. GAO helps Congress to understand and make critical decisions about those advancements, decisions that will affect policy for years to come. The Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics Team (STAA) plays a critical role in shaping that assistance.  

In today’s WatchBlog post, we explore our work on science and technology, and hear from some of our scientists leading that work. 

Explaining complex problems

While scientists in a lab study a particular topic or problem, scientists at GAO look at a broad range of science and technology issues, as well as the policies governing them. For example, our scientists—many of whom hold a PhD in their field—study the literature, interview industry leaders, and review how science and technology are being utilized. They then provide reports for Congress about the effects of these topics, as well as key policy questions lawmakers should consider.

For instance, Nacole King, a chemist here at GAO, recently examined how technologies are being used to identify chemical warfare agents, critical work given that foreign governments are suspected of using chemical weapons despite international prohibitions.

“It was a fun challenge to try and condense such a complex topic into a two-pager Spotlight,” Nacole says. “As a subject matter expert, I love that—just explaining how things work.”

Charlotte Hinkle, a physical scientist, echoes this in a description of her work on quantum technologies, tools that could revolutionize sensors, computation, and communication.

“As a theoretical chemist, you look at the principles of quantum mechanics,” Charlotte said. “Here you get to see how those principles are applied…It’s exciting to make these concepts tangible for readers.”


Photo showing STAA scientists around a GAO logo (Updated to crop)

Image caption: Clockwise starting from the top left corner: Charlotte Hinkle, Chi Mai, Andrew Kurtzman, Elise Beisecker, and Nacole King.

Discovering new solutions

At the same time, our Innovation Lab is exploring new and advanced technology such as natural language processing, cloud services, and more. The lab is made up of data scientists and technologists like Elise Beisecker. Elise, a senior data scientist on the team, helped build our Operation Warp Speed dashboard, which pulled in the latest clinical trials data to help people make sense of COVID-19 vaccine development. 

“It was a challenge to develop these prototypes so quickly, but that’s what I like about the work,” she said. “I’m not doing the same type of coding every day. I feel like I’m always thinking and applying techniques differently.”

Andrew Kurtzman, another senior data scientist in the Innovation Lab, takes a similar tack. In his work, Andrew is using data analysis tools to help his colleagues across the agency review federal programs at a larger scale and a lower cost.

“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit about the Innovation Lab,” Andrew said. “We’re always asking what isn’t being done already and how we can do things differently.”

Making an impact

Our scientists aren’t just studying advancements in science and technology, they are also informing Congress about the impact of those advancements and what options they should consider in light of them.

For instance, one of our reports looked at U.S. government efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and what steps agencies can take to better coordinate those efforts. In this, Chi Mai, a senior aerospace engineer, was able to apply his background in science and engineering to ensure that we both collected the necessary background information on the topic and presented the technologies accurately.

“Most researchers are working on a specific problem,” Chi said. “Here you are affecting public policy. You are helping Congress understand how these technologies work and what opportunities and challenges they might present.”

This policy mindedness extends to Eliot Fletcher’s work as a senior biological scientist on the team, specifically his early work on coronaviruses. In Eliot’s work, he explored not only what coronaviruses are, but what effect they might have on the wider public, what steps are being taken to assess vaccine safety, and what the social and economic implications of pandemics can be.

“If you publish a report at GAO, you can get that research on a congressional desk and, potentially, affect what bills get passed,” Eliot said. “Your work has a real impact.”

Our Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team is making an impact with their work, exploring new topics every day. Want to join our team? We’re hiring specialists with a background in biology, chemistry, computer science, and more. See all our openings here.

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Timothy M. Persons
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About Watchblog

GAO's mission is to provide Congress with fact-based, nonpartisan information that can help improve federal government performance and ensure accountability for the benefit of the American people. GAO launched its WatchBlog in January, 2014, as part of its continuing effort to reach its audiences—Congress and the American people—where they are currently looking for information.

The blog format allows GAO to provide a little more context about its work than it can offer on its other social media platforms. Posts will tie GAO work to current events and the news; show how GAO’s work is affecting agencies or legislation; highlight reports, testimonies, and issue areas where GAO does work; and provide information about GAO itself, among other things.

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