While the lambasting of federal workers is common sport in the 2012 election season, a select group of them was spared the usual treatment and instead saluted for their accomplishments Thursday afternoon.

“It’s breathtaking to see what good is being done by the government in the quiet recesses, away from the headlines and invective,” syndicated columnist George Will said a luncheon at The Washington Post honoring the finalists for the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals.

Jake Taylor, NIST (Sam Kittner/kittner.com/SAM KITTNER/KITTNER.COM)

The awards, dubbed the Oscars of federal service, will be handed out at a gala in Washington Thursday night. Those honored include researchers battling AIDS and bone marrow disease, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, and an amputee clinic chief aiding Iraq and Afghanistan veterans

Among the honorees attending the luncheon was Jacob Taylor, a 34-year-old physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who has been awarded the Call to Service Medal for federal employees under the age of 35 in government service for less than five years.

“The neat thing is people here are focused on the concept of service - what are we doing to help the country, and are there ways to do it better,” said Taylor, who works at the NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg.

Taylor’s theories have led to the development of diamond-tipped sensors that can perform magnetic resonance tests on individual cells or on single molecules, technology that has raised hopes of being able to detect diseases at earlier stages and develop better medications.

Also attending the luncheon was Federal Employee of the Year Lynn Mofenson, chief of the adolescent and maternal AIDS Branch at the National Institutes of Health, who was selected for her role in battling AIDS among children by developing ways to prevent mother-to-child transmission

Mofenson said she viewed the award not as personal achievement but as “honoring the work of many hard-working and dedicated people, both within and outside of the government, who contributed to the research that has enabled us to now talk about an AIDS-free generation of children.”

In his remarks, Will noted that those who quote Ronald Reagan as saying “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” typically leave out the preamble the president used to qualify those words during his first inaugural address in 1981: “In this present crisis.”

“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers, I say in the belly of the beast here,” Will quipped.

This year’s winners were selected from a list of more than 400 nominees by a committee including representatives from the government, academia, and the private sector. Nominations for the 2013 awards are being accepted at www.servicetoamericamedals.org

Will admonished the honorees not to linger at the lunch: “Eat fast, because you people are valuable, so get back to work.”