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Author: Timothy Persons
Date: Fall 2020
From: Issues in Science and Technology(Vol. 37, Issue 1)
Publisher: National Academy of Sciences
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,949 words
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the nation's urgent need for timely, reliable scientific information. Though information on the pandemic is in ample supply, less readily available is reliable analysis of what this flood of information means.

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) focuses on just that careful evaluation. Our newest internal unit--the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team--provides Congress with timely, independent, and relevant analysis to both respond to and anticipate shifts that will, like COVID-19, profoundly impact daily life.

Congress has invested in the team because of a growing, bipartisan recognition that science, technology, and innovation challenges require a new approach. GAO's century-long mandate to ensure the accountability of the federal government positions us to maintain strong oversight of taxpayer spending on science and technology. And by growing our expertise and focus on this topic, we can help Congress navigate the increasingly complex technologies it must govern, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and rapid vaccine development.

In the year and a half since our team was established, we have led 40 reports and contributed to over 250. Our work includes technology assessments, program evaluations, two-page explainers called "Science & Tech Spotlights," and participation in hundreds of external events.

The STAA team is also increasing the speed at which the GAO responds to emerging issues. For example, the team responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak, releasing an overview of coronaviruses on March 3, 2020--six weeks after the virus was detected in the United States--and followed up with several related Spotlights. We reported on the many uncertainties in the science behind social distancing, as well as on the potential for accelerating vaccine development. In the latter Spotlight, we reported that 110 vaccines were in development around the world as of May 15, with at least three receiving federal funding, and that expedited vaccines might raise unintended safety and distribution risks.

In a more in-depth report, the team reviewed COVID-19 forecasting models, which can help predict trends such as infection or mortality rates. We found that because these models rely on data collected by different jurisdictions and reported under different standards, it is difficult to compare data across places and over time. In our overview of herd immunity, we similarly reported that the data are insufficient to show how long COVID-19 immunity might last or whether it's enough to prevent reinfection.

The team has also contributed to larger GAO efforts around COVID-19. In June 2020, the GAO issued a major report on federal response and recovery efforts, which found inconsistencies in viral testing numbers, critical supply shortages, and confusion about the Paycheck Protection Program. The team provided the technical expertise that helped Congress better understand what key actions the federal government had taken to address the pandemic and, importantly, what lessons could be learned from the response.

Even before COVID-19 cases surged in the United States, the GAO was examining urgent issues in health...

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