Could AI Help Create New Medicines?

Developing and bringing a new drug to market is a lengthy and expensive process. Only about 1 in 10,000 chemical compounds that are tested makes it through the research and development pipeline and is approved by the FDA.

This process can take 10 to 15 years (and cost between $600 million and $1.4 billion) for a single drug.

We looked at how machine learning—a form of artificial intelligence in which software uses huge amounts of data to independently perform a task—could help speed up this process and make it cheaper.

Read on, and listen to our podcast with GAO’s Chief Scientist and Managing Director of Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics, to learn more.

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Photo of Prescription Pills

AI could improve discovery and testing…

Machine learning is already being used throughout the drug development process.

  • Drug discovery: Machine learning is helping researchers identify and screen more chemical compounds, and screen existing compounds for new therapeutic applications.
  • Preclinical research: Researchers are using machine learning to augment preclinical testing and predict toxicity before testing potential drugs on humans. This could help weed out compounds that will fail in clinical trials, which could reduce costs.
  • Clinical trials: Machine learning is helping improve clinical trial design (a point where many drug candidates fail) by assisting in patient selection and recruitment.

Machine learning might screen more compounds and help develop drugs faster

Figure Showing How Machine Learning Might Screen More Compounds and Help Develop Drugs Faster

These improvements could save lives and reduce suffering by getting drugs to patients more quickly. This could also allow researchers to invest more resources in areas like rare or orphan diseases.

But challenges need to be addressed

Before patients see these benefits, however, researchers and drug companies will have to wrestle with a number of challenges. For example, a shortage of high-quality data is a major challenge for machine learning in drug development. Accessing and sharing data can also be difficult due to cost, legal issues, and reluctance to share data from some companies.

Additionally, a shortage of skilled workers makes hiring and retention difficult for drug companies and regulators. Gaps in research and uncertainty about federal regulations may also hurt the adoption of this technology.

We’ve identified a number of policy options that the federal government and other leaders could use to address these issues. These include creating incentives to increase data sharing, and developing a clear and consistent message regarding regulation.

Find out more by reading the full report.

This report is part of a larger collaboration between GAO and the National Academy of Medicine and includes an excerpt from the Academy’s 2020 special publication, Artificial Intelligence in Health Care: The Hope, the Hype, the Promise, the Peril.


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Taxing Times: Turning to IRS for Help

It’s that time of year again—tax filing season. As you prepare to file your tax return, where do you turn for help?

Millions of taxpayers visit irs.gov for information or contact IRS during the filing season either on the phone, in person, or by mail. Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at some of the services IRS provides, and how IRS can better serve taxpayer needs.

Photo of IRS Form 1040

IRS.gov services need your input

IRS offers a range of online services including:

  • Tracking your refund
  • Getting your tax transcripts if you need to obtain student loans or a mortgage
  • Making arrangements with IRS if you need more time to pay what you owe

But how does IRS choose which services to provide on its website? We looked into this question and found that IRS prioritizes services primarily based on their potential to benefit the agency’s operations or because they can be developed quickly. And although IRS recognizes that taxpayers want more online options, it doesn’t consider taxpayer input in its prioritization process.

We recommended that IRS include taxpayer input when prioritizing new services to help avoid developing services that taxpayers don’t use.

Comparing online tax services

We also compared IRS’ online services to other foreign and state revenue agencies, and found that IRS doesn’t let taxpayers file taxes directly on its website like some of its counterparts.

Figure Showing the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s and Three Foreign Revenue Agencies’ Online Services

IRS has long had an agreement with the tax industry to offer free electronic filing for low- and middle-income taxpayers through Free File, but the agreement long prohibited IRS from developing its own online filing service.

IRS and the consortium agreed to remove this prohibition in December 2019—shortly after our report was issued. We continue to believe IRS should assess all the potential benefits and costs prior to renewing the agreement beyond its scheduled expiration in October 2021.

Listen to our podcast with Jessica Lucas-Judy to learn more.

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Services for taxpayers with limited English-language skills

IRS offers a few services to taxpayers with limited-English proficiency. For example, Spanish-speaking taxpayers can call IRS to speak with a bi-lingual representative. However, we found that these services are very limited, and the translated content on its website is outdated (a summary of this report in Spanish is available here; un resumen de este informe en español está disponible aquí). IRS also hasn’t assessed whether to translate many of its common tax forms, such as the Form 1040.

We recommended that the IRS improve services to taxpayers with limited English skills, as this could improve taxpayer compliance.

Figure Showing Outdated Translated Information on IRS.gov for 2019 Filing Season

Calling IRS may not always get you an answer

IRS receives tens of millions of calls during the filing season from taxpayers seeking assistance. For the 2019 filing season, IRS successfully implemented major tax law changes but faced training and hiring delays due to a partial government shutdown. As a result, we found that fewer taxpayers reached someone at IRS in 2019 compared to prior years and those that did waited on hold for about 9 minutes.

Figure Showing IRS Telephone Level of Service and Wait Times during the 2019 Filing Season

In addition, if you call with a question, it might not be one that IRS can answer. Each year, IRS makes a list of topics it considers “out of scope” and refers the taxpayer to irs.gov or a tax professional for assistance. We recommended that IRS post a list of these topics online for taxpayers to know before they call whether or not IRS can answer their question.

You can read more of our tax-related work here.


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Deterring Financial Crime with the Bank Secrecy Act

Money laundering, terrorist financing, and other illicit activities pose threats to national security and the integrity of the U.S. financial system. The Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) requires financial institutions—such as banks and money transmitters—to verify customers’ identities and report suspicious activities to the federal government and law enforcement to help detect and prevent such crimes.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent reports on how federal agencies and financial institutions share BSA information and federal oversight of banks’ compliance with certain BSA requirements—particularly when the banks’ customers are money transmitting businesses, such as Western Union or MoneyGram.

BSA Requirements

Financial institutions are generally required to:

  • collect and retain various records of customer transactions
  • verify customers’ identities
  • design and implement an anti-money laundering program that is tailored to an institution’s products and services offered and the customers and locations served
  • file certain reports (such as suspicious activity reports) that may help assist law enforcement investigations

 Who is involved?

The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network collects and disseminates BSA data. It collaborates with supervisory agencies, which include regulators of financial markets (like the Federal Reserve) that conduct BSA examinations; law enforcement agencies (like the FBI) that investigate using BSA information; and private financial institutions that report on suspicious activity.

Money transmitters—which need bank accounts to conduct business—play an important role in the financial system. This is in part because they provide financial services to people less likely to use traditional banking services, as well as their prominent role in providing international money transfers.

How could they improve?

Financial institutions have said that BSA reporting requirements can be overly burdensome. They have also said they don’t know whether their reports are actually used, for example, in law enforcement investigations. We found that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network could do a better job communicating in these areas and recommended, among other things, that it find ways to improve information sharing.

We also found that federal banking regulators could better prepare their examiners to question banks and request information about their money transmitter customers. We recommended that regulators take steps to improve examiners’ evaluation of banks’ compliance with BSA requirements, such as by providing more training.

Check out our recently issued reports on BSA information-sharing and BSA bank exams for more information.


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Podcast Roundup – Podcasts You May Have Missed

2019 was a banner year for GAO podcasts. In addition to launching our new Deep Dig podcast series, we produced more podcasts than ever before—64 in total! In case you didn’t catch them all, today’s WatchBlog features a handful of podcasts from the end of 2019.

Nutrition Assistance for Older Adults

Federal nutrition guidelines are the basis for nutrition assistance programs that serve older adults. However, the guidelines don’t focus on the varying nutritional needs of many older adults—such as those over age 70 or those with common health conditions, like diabetes. Kathy Larin, a director in our Education, Workforce, and Income Security team, talks about why focusing on older adults in the next update to nutrition guidelines is important, and how federal agencies can better assure that older adults have the nutrition that they need. Check it out.

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Imported Seafood Safety

Did you know that more than 90% of the seafood Americans eat is imported? If FDA it suspects that imported seafood may violate U.S. laws, it can detain the products at ports until the violation has been resolved—a process called an import alert. Listen to Steve Morris, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, discuss how FDA decides to remove import alerts, and our recommendations for improving the process.

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Improving Naval Shipyards

The Navy’s public shipyards are critical to maintaining its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, as well as supporting its operations around the world. In 2017, we found the shipyards were in poor condition and not meeting the Navy’s needs. In response, the Navy developed a 20-year, $21 billion plan to fix them. Diana Maurer—a director in our Defense Capabilities and Management team—talked about our review of that plan. Hear what she had to say.

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FEMA’s Wildfire Response and Recovery

In 2017 and 2018, wildfires in California killed 159 people and destroyed more than 32,000 structures, including many homes. In response, FEMA put about $2 billion toward housing, debris removal, and other assistance. Listen to Chris Currie from our Homeland Security and Justice team discuss the unique response and recovery challenges wildfires bring, as well as additional actions FEMA can take to better prepare for large-scale fires in the future.

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If you don’t want to miss out on what we do in 2020, you can subscribe to our podcasts through iTunes or the RSS feed.


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Our Guide to Tech Readiness

The development of cutting-edge technologies is critical to many of the government’s most costly acquisition projects, including new weapons, satellites, nuclear facilities, and homeland security systems. The federal government spends billions of dollars acquiring these technologies. However, these technologies can cause program delays and cost increases if the government decides to use them in new systems before they are ready.

Our new Technology Readiness Assessment Guide can help system engineers, program managers, technology developers, and auditors evaluate whether technologies are mature enough to be integrated in a new product or system.

This guide outlines 5 steps and associated best practices for developing and producing high-quality technology readiness assessments that include:

  1. Preparing the assessment plan and selecting the team
  2. Identifying critical technologies
  3. Assessing critical technologies
  4. Preparing the assessment report
  5. Using the report’s findings

The methodology we’ve developed can be applied across large and small acquisition projects. We have also outlined a roadmap for preparing technology maturation plans, evaluating software, and enhancing technology assessments.

Hundreds of public comments have been incorporated into our guide since 2016.

Our Technology Readiness Assessment Guide is a companion to GAO’s cost estimating and assessment guide and the schedule assessment guide.

For more information, check out the guide.


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The Rankings Are In—GAO Again Named Among Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

Continuing our streak, GAO has again been named one of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. This year, we rose to 3rd among mid-size agencies—up one place from last year.  We also once again ranked #1 in our support of diversity among mid-size agencies.

Logo for The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government

U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro had this to say about the rankings:

This year’s list of the best places to work confirms GAO’s reputation as an employer of choice in the federal government.

The ratings reflect the high regard our employees have for the agency and their willingness to recommend GAO to others interested in public sector work.

Another point of pride is our continuing high score on diversity and inclusion.

Issued every year, the Partnership for Public Service’s rankings provide insights into how federal employees’ satisfaction with their jobs and offices. The 2019 ratings reflect the perspectives of more than 883,000 federal workers at 490 organizations, based on survey responses on a wide range of workplace topics.

Read our press release here and learn more about GAO’s work in our video.


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Home for the Holidays? Not So Fast…

Flights delayed or canceled, passengers bumped, family celebrations missed—we’ve all heard the air travel horror stories. What recourse do you have if it happens to you? Well, that can depend on what caused the problem. Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at two issues that can cause unexpected “turbulence” in your air travel plans—information technology outages and denied boardings.

A Photo of an Airplane Window Overlooking the Wings of the Plane

We apologize for the inconvenience

In recent years, some airlines have had well-publicized information technology outages. For example, in June 2018, American Airlines subsidiary PSA Airlines experienced an IT issue that led to the cancellation of about 3,000 flights over the following week.
The federal government does not track airline IT outages or their effects directly. Using multiple sources, we identified 34 IT outages from 2015 through 2017 affecting 11 of 12 selected airlines. About 85% of these outages resulted in flight delays or cancellations.

Figure Showing Examples of Airline Information Technology (IT) Systems and Potential IT Outage Effects

If you’re inconvenienced by IT outages, what rights do you have? Federal consumer protections don’t specifically address IT outages, but other protections may apply. For example, if an IT outage delays your plane on the tarmac, there are restrictions on how long the airline can keep you on the plane. If an outage cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund if you request it, or you may receive a voucher for food or lodging—depending on the airline’s policies.

Ticket to ride?

Having a ticket isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be able to get on the plane. There are several reasons why airlines may deny boarding to a passenger:

  • Overbooking: Airlines overbook flights to avoid losing money when passengers don’t show up for their flights. Passengers can get bumped when there are fewer no-shows than expected.
  • Safety: An unruly or intoxicated passenger can be denied boarding to protect other passengers and crew.
  • Operations or personnel needs: Airlines sometimes need to accommodate flight crews that need to get to different locations, or air marshals—who tend to book flights near departure times.

Airlines can ask you to volunteer to give up your seat in exchange for some benefit, such as a travel voucher.

Figure Showing Example of an Airline's Process to Identify Volunteers for Denied Boarding

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, you can still get bumped. What rights do you have if airlines don’t let you board? In some cases, federal consumer protections require airlines to compensate you.

The number of passengers denied boarding has generally decreased in recent years. Almost all of those were volunteers, but the few passengers who were bumped against their will may have experienced considerable inconvenience and expense.

Figure Showing Passengers Denied Boarding Between 2012-2018

The decrease in denied boardings could in part be the result of actions airlines have taken, such as:

  • Reducing or eliminating overbookings
  • Requesting volunteers early (e.g., at check-in)
  • Increasing and diversifying compensation for volunteers
  • Inviting passengers to propose acceptable compensation

That said, we hope you don’t have trouble getting home for the holidays after all.


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A GAO Photo Album

They say a picture is worth a thousand words—which is one reason our Watchdogs often snap photos on the audit trail to use as evidence in our reports.

In today’s WatchBlog, we’re highlighting some of the photos that helped to visually represent the results of our work in 2019.

Lingering oil

It can take decades and billions of dollars to undo the environmental damage from an oil spill. One of our audit teams captured this image of lingering oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Eleanor Island, Alaska during a review of federal restoration efforts.

Truck underride guards

A truck underride crash occurs when a car slides under a large truck, like a tractor-trailer. The Department of Transportation requires trailers to have a rear safety bar—known as an underride guard—to prevent underride crashes.

While on a site visit for a report on truck underride guards, our auditors happened to notice this damaged guard on the rear of a passing truck. Worry not, the team promptly called the number on the back of the truck to alert the company about the issue.

Hurricane damage

Recent hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding have highlighted the challenges the federal government faces in responding effectively to disasters. This photo of a motorboat washed ashore was snapped by one of our auditors in the small coastal town of Mexico Beach, Florida about a month after it was hit by Hurricane Michael.

We featured this photo in a testimony on our past and ongoing work on FEMA’s disaster preparedness, response, and recovery operations.

Visualizing environmental justice

Environmental justice seeks to address the disproportionately high health and environmental risks found among low-income and minority communities.

For example, California’s mostly minority and low-income community of West Oakland is surrounded by 3 freeways and a port. Consequently, its residents are exposed to diesel air pollution that is 3 times higher than that in the surrounding area. A GAO auditor captured this photo while visiting West Oakland for our review of federal environmental justice efforts.

Security measures on federal lands

Federal land management agencies have law enforcement divisions to help protect employees and facilities on nearly 700 million acres of land. To observe federal efforts to secure facilities and protect employees on federal lands, our auditors went to several regional and state offices and field units.

This collage shows examples of some of the internal and external security measures at some of the facilities they visited.


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The Importance of Good Oversight for Medicaid

Medicaid plays an important role in providing health care coverage for low-income, medically needy Americans. In 2018, Medicaid covered approximately 75 million people at a cost of about $629 billion. But overseeing this program can be challenging, given its size and complexity—which is why Medicaid has been on our High Risk List since 2003.

To help viewers get a quick overview of the current issues and challenges confronting the program, we just recently produced this short video examining Medicaid oversight.

Both the federal government and the states jointly fund Medicaid. Because states have flexibility to design their Medicaid programs within broad federal guidelines to meet their own needs, each state’s program is different. That’s part of why program monitoring is so important and complicated.

Good information is key to program oversight. However, available Medicaid data haven’t always shed light on how well the Medicaid program is operating.

For example, Congress established new federal rules in 2010 and 2016 for screening and enrolling health care providers in Medicaid. These rules are designed to exclude providers from Medicaid who don’t meet minimum standards, which can help prevent fraud, waste, and abuse.

Yet we recently found that not all states have implemented these rules, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services—which oversees states’ administration of Medicaid—doesn’t have a complete picture of state compliance. Read our report to learn more.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Carolyn Yocom at yocomc@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Expanding GAO’s Science & Technology Expertise

We provide Congress with nonpartisan and fact-based analysis of technological and scientific developments that affect our society, environment, and economy. To enhance our ability to do this, we established the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team in January 2019.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our efforts to put more science and technology (S&T) analysis into the hands of Congress.

Responding Quickly to Congress’s Priorities

In accordance with our STAA team plan, we have provided state-of-the-art scientific and technical information to the Congress, including:

We are also tackling additional topics to meet Congress’s growing demand for thorough and balanced analysis.

Graphic Showing Selected Ongoing GAO Science and Technology (S&T) Work

Meeting Congress’s Growing Needs

In its recent assessment of S&T policy, the National Academy of Public Administration recommended that “…existing legislative support agencies (i.e., the GAO and the CRS), both with long history and respected performance, be given authority and resources to further develop their ability to respond to congressional inquiries and expand their capabilities to close the S&T resources support supply gap.”

To address this need, we have taken steps to further expand our S&T capability.

For instance:

  • We have prioritized technology assessments that are fact-based, independent, nonpartisan, and responsive to the needs of Congress. We also now offer policy options as part of our technology assessment approach and have asked for public review and comment on our Technology Assessment Design Handbook.
  • We have successfully recruited top S&T talent. This includes engineers, chemists, biologists, physical scientists, and other technical experts who work in partnership with our extensive array of program and policy experts. Over the next several years, the STAA team’s plan is to grow to 140 people and add expertise in biological sciences, engineering, quantum computing, nuclear physics, physics/aerospace engineering, and data analysis.
  • We are working to create our own S&T advisory board and will continue expanding our networks of external experts and advisory boards.

We look forward to continue providing Congress with the kind of foresight, insight, and oversight that policymakers need to make informed decisions about science and technology issues.


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