Besides The Presidential Race, Science Was On The Ballot

5:49 minutes

a long line of voters outside with "vote here" sign
Voters line up outside for the polls in Sparks, Nevada on Election Day 2020. Credit: Shutterstock

While most of the country’s attention was focused on the outcome of this week’s presidential election, there were plenty of science-adjacent items up for a vote as well. Several states had drug policy changes on the ballot, including New Jersey voting to legalize recreational marijuana sales and Oregon electing to decriminalize possession of hard drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, and oxycodone.

In Colorado, voters narrowly approved a proposal allowing the reintroduction and management of grey wolves into the wild in the state. And in Nevada, a constitutional amendment passed requiring utilities in the state to get 50 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2030. 

Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to check in on those stories and more from the week in science, including hearing from a distant friend—Voyager 2. 

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, as the number of cases break records daily– yesterday was 116,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 1,100 deaths– we’ll check in on the COVID outlook and we’ll check in on the murder hornets. We’ll talk about that.

But first the presidential election has taken center stage this week, and while most of the attention was focused on the names at the top of the ballot, around the country there were plenty of science-adjacent items up for a vote. Joining me in an interview we recorded this morning to talk about those and other stories from the week in science is Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie. A busy day and week, right? FiveThirtyEight.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, indeed. You may have heard there was an election. That happened, and then it happened, and then it kept happening, and– yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I got out of the cave this morning and just found out about it. Let’s talk about some of the local side-stories from this election.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. Well let’s start, as is traditional, with drugs. Or in this case, drug law reform. So decriminalization and legalization of marijuana is a growing trend in the US and this election saw four new states making pot legal. And a fifth, Mississippi, legalized it for medical purposes.

But maybe a bigger thing is what happened in the state of Oregon, which passed two measures. One that decriminalize possession of small amounts of many different drugs, including things like heroin. And another that enables health care institutions to give people hallucinogenic mushrooms. Both these changes are actually evidence-based.

Research on similar measures in countries like Portugal suggests that decriminalization of drugs can play a big factor in harm reduction, reducing drug adjacent crime, and keeping people healthier. And those psilocybin mushrooms have been found to be effective in treating mental health disorders, like severe depression.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that is a first for any state. That’s good to hear. OK, let’s move on to your next story about wolves in Colorado.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, they’re back, or they will be. Colorado voted to reintroduce gray wolves to parts of the state. And this was a really tight race. It wasn’t actually decided until Thursday. And it was hotly contested, pitting a heavily rural anti-wolf coalition against a heavily urban pro-wolf one.

The anti-wolf groups were concerned that the animals are going to negatively affect hunting and ranching. And the pro-wolf groups are looking at the ecological impacts that have happened in places like Yellowstone, where a reintroduction of wolves in 1995 ended up creating this really interesting cascade of systemic changes that led to things like cleaner streams, and brought several native species of plants and animals back from the brink.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s move on to Nevada renewable energy. Big story now, I would imagine, if it’s going to be President Biden talking about renewable energy.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right, so Nevada passed a mandate that required utilities in the state to get 50% of their power from renewable resources by 2030. That’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First it required a really high threshold to pass. This is actually the second time Nevadans have voted on this measure because it’s a change to the state constitution, not just an average law. And so it required approval in two even-numbered election years.

And that says something about support for renewables in the state. That measure is also notable because it would put this one state, at least, on-track to meet those agreements for the Paris Climate Accords, literally on the day that the US formally withdrew from the Accord. Although if– as it looks like– we’re going to end up with President Biden, we’ll likely be back in that Accord soon, too.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. Let’s go to other than the election news. We didn’t get hit by an asteroid, did we?

MAGGIE KOERTH: We didn’t, yay! The whole Earth wasn’t destroyed.

IRA FLATOW: Always good news.

MAGGIE KOERTH: They call me good news Maggie. So you may recall that there was that seven-foot diameter rock that had a 1 in 250 chance of hitting our planet on November the 3rd. Instead it shot past us like a case of mail-in ballots in the night and it’s flying off somewhere through space. There were reports of fireballs in the sky on election night, but those were related to the ongoing Taurid meteor shower and should not be interpreted as portents of doom.

IRA FLATOW: That’s true. I love your wordsmanship on that, Maggie. Finally, we’re talking about hopeful things and a hopeful message from a long distance friend. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, NASA sent a message to interstellar space on October 29, hailing Voyager 2 for the first time since the deep space radio antenna in Australia that’s able to communicate with it went offline for repairs in March. This is kind of a big deal, because that radio antenna hadn’t been upgraded on this crucial transmitter in more than 47 years.

So this was a big thing that needed to happen. And the fact that Voyager 2 was able to receive and respond to that signal now is a good sign for the repair team. And also for the Voyager team, given that this is literally the only radio antenna in the entire world that can command that little space probe.

IRA FLATOW: Now I have to say that, for transparency purposes, Voyager 2 is my favorite spacecraft out there because it has really gone where no spacecraft has ever gone. And I remember covering the launch of Voyager 2. So, thank you for ending our update on that because it’s a really happy note for me. Thank you, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yes, thank you so much. We will see you again sometime soon.

IRA FLATOW: Hopefully. Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight. And we are all hoping for a relaxing weekend, and that’s a good way to start it.

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