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GAO Releases Five-Year Strategic Plan with R&D a Top Priority

The independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress released their five-year strategic plan, which looks at trends on the horizon and how they might impact education.

Every four years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) publishes a strategic plan for Congress that considers the full scope of operations of the federal government, as well as emerging and future trends that may affect the government and society as a whole.

The GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” the GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. The strategic plan is important because it helps Congressional leaders understand upcoming trends. The plan released by the GAO is not legally binding, but consists of key recommendations Congress can take and turn into bills or laws.

It should come as no surprise that technology is a consistent theme for the plan, which covers 2018-2023. While the report focuses on different areas of the federal government, there is a portion that focuses on workforce development, education, and research and development.

The report is divided up into goals and objectives, key efforts and trends affecting government and society. Throughout the entire report, the word “technology” is used 32 times. Also, the words “uncertain” or “unknown” appear multiple times, reflecting the challenge for the federal government to predict the extent in which technology will continue to impact our society.

Education and Preparing the Future Workforce

A recent survey mentioned in the GAO plan showed us what we already know: Students are not finishing their education with the skills needed for the jobs that are available. The survey found that 38 percent of human resource professionals report difficulty recruiting employees for full-time positions due to a number of factors, including candidates’ lack of technical skills. U.S. students also lag behind their peers in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations in science and math, and sizable numbers of youths are unprepared for college or the workforce, or they drop out of school altogether.

Another factor affecting education and workforce trends is automation and artificial intelligence. One study cited by the National Intelligence Council projects that automation and AI could replace 45 percent of the activities that people are now paid to perform, including those performed by relatively highly paid workers.

This data brings along some key uncertainties. The GAO states, “The impact that data and analytics innovation and other technological changes will have on job tasks is not fully known, nor is the extent of mismatch between new skills requirements and current labor force characteristics. The future balance between job creation and job loss is difficult to predict. The pace at which displacements may occur and the extent of new technologies’ effects on worker productivity are not clear.”

Research and Development

The report also places a great emphasis on research and development (R&D). “Science and technology advances are key to economic, social, and environmental well-being. The traditional models of federal and nonfederal R&D support that have existed since World War II are changing and face increased scrutiny. Since the 1950s, federal R&D funding was characterized by sustained growth, reaching a height of about $147 billion in fiscal year 2010. However, since fiscal year 2010, the level of federal R&D funding has become more variable on an annual basis,” according to the report.

Also mentioned is the fact that other countries, such as China and South Korea, are likely to pass the U.S. in R&D in the early to mid-2020s.

The GAO report also points out that “the extent to which the United States is able to focus R&D investment in key technology areas will be a key factor in U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. In turn, U.S. competitiveness in the global economy will determine the extent to which the U.S. economy will benefit from the potential future growth associated with emerging technology areas. Without sustained attention to evaluating the effectiveness of U.S. R&D investments, it will be difficult for the federal government to maximize the use of its constrained resources, which could then increase the risk that the United States will not be able to harness the potential of future science and technology advances.”

STEM and Emerging Technologies

Disagreements exist about the sufficiency of the current supply of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers in the United States. Some have concluded that the United States has a sufficient supply of STEM workers; but others have found that the education system is not producing enough STEM graduates to fill the jobs available in STEM occupations.

The GAO also identifies five technologies that they believe will most impact our society. These include genome editing, artificial intelligence and automation, quantum information science, brain/augmented reality, cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

Although it might be difficult to see how some of these could disrupt education, we need to be thinking about all the ways and implications now.