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The Fabric of Our Lives

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
May 10, 2016

Do you know what government does?

Even those who work in government often are unaware of services government provides or the products government has seeded. So as we honor public service through Public Service Recognition Week and its related events, I want to identify things that affect our daily lives that result from research conducted either directly by government researchers or indirectly through contract administration by public officials. Some are lifesaving, while others merely make our lives better.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an agency that supports research resulting in a wide range of products. For example, health related spinoffs from NASA research include infrared ear thermometers, insulin pumps, dynamic artificial limbs, invisible braces for teeth, scratch resistant eye glass lenses, work out machines, imaging technologies—including CATScans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging and ultrasound—and a DNR/RNA tool to diagnose and treat illness. In addition, NASA engineers were involved in the development of the cochlear implant and the artificial heart pump.

NASA research has also led to devices that prevent loss of life. These include aircraft anti-icing technology, safety grooving for runways and highways, improved radial tires, chemical detection technology that supports home fire detectors, landmine removal technology, fire-resistant materials, firefighting gear and the lifeshears that first responders use to remove accident victims.

schuh 2NASA has funded research leading to many household products. These include the memory foam in pillows and mattresses, portable cordless vacuums, water filters, freeze-dried foods, anti-rust coatings and baby food supplements. Important green products have come from NASA sponsored research. These include solar panels, home insulation, waste recycling technology and soil remediation technology. Finally, in support of the playful side of human nature, a NASA researcher has even given us the super soaker!

While NASA is one of the most prolific sponsors of government research, it is not the only government producer of things that change our lives. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has its share of achievements. In the 1950s, a USDA researcher developed a blood plasma extender for use in emergency rooms. In the 1970s, USDA was involved in the development of the Super Slurper material that is used in baby diapers, medical dressings and reusable gel cooling packs. In the 1980s, another USDA researcher developed an enzyme process that is used in creating high-fiber, low-fat and low-glycemic processed foods. In the current century, USDA has been involved in the development of a product that uses water more efficiently in plant growth, a particularly important product in climates with inadequate water supplies.

schuh 3During the 1960s, the Defense Department (DOD) created the Internet because the military wanted to connect computers together for a less vulnerable communication system than the telephone. Today, the traditional telephone landline is rapidly being replaced by the Internet telephone. Although technology developed by DOD in the 1970s to locate nuclear missiles was originally questioned because of its costs, we now use that technology in car navigational devices and in smartphones. DOD-funded research developed the microchip, which is used in most electronic devices. The gas turbine engines in windfarms came from technology funded by DOD to improve military jets.

schuh 4The National Institutes of Health supported the development of the flu shot and the hepatitis A and B vaccines. A 2011 study by the New England Journal of Medicine identified 153 new drugs and vaccines developed by research during a 40-year period. The treated conditions range from autoimmune disorders to cancer.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research that developed scanners to read bar codes. In 1996, NSF and the Central Intelligence Agency funded research that created the first touch-screen tablet. Larry Page received funding from the federal Digital Libraries Initiative and Sergei Brin was supported by a graduate student fellowship from NSF when they developed an algorithm to rank Web pages before they founded Google.

While this is not a comprehensive list of government research, no list of government sponsored research can omit the 1888 Hollerith Machine. This machine was developed to tabulate the results of the 1890 census and was used in every census until it was replaced by computers in the 1950s. In fashioning this tabulating machine, Herman Hollerith created punch cards with their dangling, dimpled and pregnant chads highlighted in the 2000 Florida presidential election recount.

As we celebrate public service, let’s focus both on the people and their products. Average citizens may not remember the names of those honored during Public Service Recognition Week, but they will remember the convenience of paper diapers, the wonder of hearing restored by a cochlear implant, the tragedy avoided with lifeshears and the laughter of children playing with super soakers. Public servants produce an extraordinary range of products. Without government our lives would be less healthy, less safe, less efficient and less whimsical. So thank you public servants for all you give to us citizens. To copy from an old commercial, government workers create “…the fabric of our lives.”


Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an associate professor and director of the masters of public administration program at Roosevelt University. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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