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Giving workers the power to automate

Just like Excel or PowerPoint, robotic process automation software will improve the way employees do their daily work, according to National Science Foundation officials who have started to implement the technology.

“It’s basically just this software that you have on your desktop that can do manual work and transactional work,” NSF Deputy CFO Mike Wetklow said. Employees are very excited about the technology, especially those that have a lot of manual data-entry work, he said at an Oct. 11 event hosted by Government Executive and NextGov.

NSF conducted a pilot last year and is currently working toward spreading the technology across the agency.

CIO Dorothy Aronson told GCN that NSF expects employees to be able to make their own bots within the year. “It depends a lot on their eagerness to adjust,” she said.

“I believe that people throughout the agency should be able to develop their own bots," Aronson said. "People who have the business knowledge and understand what repetitive tasks they have should be able to use the software  … to simplify their own daily work, to move away from those repetitive tasks and actually do more strategic thinking,”  she said.

NSF is also working to apply artificial intelligence to its merit review process for new project funding.

“We receive ideas from the public, and we put panels of experts together in order to review those ideas,” Aronson said. The  program officers are responsible for assembling  these experts, some of which come from outside the agency.

As the proposed projects have become more interdisciplinary, finding reviewers with expertise in several fields has gotten harder, so AI has been enlisted to help. It was trained with data on funded proposals, so it looks for appropriate experts based on what they’ve reviewed in the past, who they’ve partnered with and other variables.

“It shrinks down the proposals to their essential elements, and then it looks out into our universe of people and says who looks like they might be an approximate match to this proposal or group of proposals,” Aronson said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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Reader Comments

Sun, Oct 14, 2018 Oliver Harris

"NSF conducted a pilot last year and is currently working toward spreading the technology across the agency." - Great to hear, looking forward to hear about the actual results! After all, once you started the RPA journey by implementing a strong and stable infrastructure, you should be set for macro scale, enterprise-wide development. This is because automation is enticing - once you start with it, you’d better keep moving forward in the direction of an enterprise-wide use. We at CiGen have advocated this as a top practice for maximum gain ( I wish to pinpoint however, that CEOs should never forget that scaling requires foresight, operationalized in terms of medium- and long-term strategic planning. So I'd advise setting specific objectives, and realistically evaluating the available resources for getting there. Afterwards... on your marks, get set, scale-up, so to say.

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