Photograph by Brendan Smialowski, AFP, Getty Images
Read Caption

Guests use their smartphones to take pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump during the Freedom Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski, AFP, Getty Images

Thank NASA for Baby Formula—And 6 More Government-Funded Inventions

A host of popular products probably wouldn’t be around today if not for robust national investment in science and innovation.

Do you use baby formula? Then you owe thanks to NASA. Did you look up today's forecast on your weather app? Be grateful to the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the CIA.

You probably wouldn’t even be reading this story online without government money for science, and you definitely wouldn’t be sharing it with friends over email, Twitter, or Facebook. Over the decades, U.S. government funding has been responsible for a host of surprising things we may take for granted as features of everyday life.

These and other benefits of a robust national science program will take center stage on April 22, when crowds around the world will rally under the umbrella of a nonpartisan, grassroots group calling itself the March for Science.

Spurred by a comment made on Reddit in January, the march grew out of a perceived threat to federal science funding from the Trump Administration. In the nascent government’s first three months, the president and his cabinet have undone environmental regulations that curb pollution and slow climate change, expressed the intent to crush space-based Earth-observation programs, and flirted with anti-vaccination rhetoric that could have serious ramifications on public health.

Now, thousands of people are expected to gather for the main event in Washington, D.C., and at satellite events in hundreds of cities. Their stated goal is to champion “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”

Here are some of the widely used products that would most likely be missing from our lives without federal research funding.

1. The Internet

View Images

Residents in the village of Embakasi, some 15 miles outside of Nairobi, Kenya, use a solar-powered internet cafe fashioned from a shipping container.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency started looking into ways to link computers to one another in 1973; the resulting network, ARPANET, was up and running by 1977. Later, in the 1980s, the NSF took control of the majority of Internet-related funding. The agency eventually offered commercial access to their network, and in 1995, the internet became a fully public system open for business.

2. Smartphones

You can thank NSF, NASA, and the CIA for the compact devices that allow you to swipe up to read this story and take vacation selfies. In the 1990s, NASA was trying to make miniature cameras for interplanetary spacecraft and ended up developing the image sensors that are now common in cell phones, as well as in webcams and DSLRs.

And researchers at the University of Delaware developed the first touchscreens using funding from the National Science Foundation and the CIA. Though private companies assembled all that technology into a single device, it’s debateable whether we’d have smartphone capabilities today without federally funded projects.

3. GPS Navigation

View Images

An employee drives a Tesla Model S in the Netherlands while using the car's built-in GPS system.

No longer a technology available only to the U.S. military, the global positioning system is now nearly ubiquitous in cars and smartphones. Developed by the Department of Defense in the 1970s, this radionavigation system relies on a constellation of at least 24 satellites. Oh, and then there’s the whole part about launching those satellites into space on government-bought rockets from government-funded air force bases.

4. Baby Formula

The liquid mixture that has been a boon for many parents wouldn’t be nearly as nutritious if NASA had not been trying to develop a bioregenerative fuel for long-duration space travel. During the course of that research, scientists stumbled upon a type of algae rich in the omega-3 fatty acids normally found in breast milk. Now, the supplement is in 90 percent of commercially available infant formulas.

5. Bar Codes

You know how annoying it is when a cashier needs to manually type in a product’s identifying number because the bar code is busted? That would be much more common if not for NSF-funded research. The government agency helped develop and improve barcode scanners, starting in the 1970s.

6. Vaccines

View Images

Irene Sanchez, 79, grimaces briefly as she receives a flu shot from a registered nurse at a local drug store.

The science is clear about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, some of which were developed with funding from the National Institutes of Health. These include vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and haemophilus influenza type B -- which would otherwise infect your liver and central nervous system, as well as other organs that are best left germ-free.

7. Weather Apps

Weather junkies would be in a jam without NSF-funded work that ultimately led to the development of weather-detecting Doppler radar, plus detailed forecasts from the National Weather Service and Storm Prediction Center, which are part of NOAA. No matter how the information is delivered, people across the U.S. rely on the forecasting models developed by NWS meteorologists, who are constantly tweaking their formulas to improve their prediction power.