Checking Science On The Ballot

7:52 minutes

the front of an official election mail ballot by absentee.
Credit: Shutterstock

Choosing the next U.S. president is not the only decision voters will make in the upcoming 2020 elections. Major science policies are also on the ballot. In some states, people will be casting votes on propositions that influence scientific research and the environment. While in other local elections, candidates with scientific backgrounds are in the running for public office. Jeffrey Mervis of Science Magazine talks about California stem cell research policies and Nevada renewable energy propositions, and how a science platform could help or harm candidates.

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Segment Guests

Jeffrey Mervis

Jeff Mervis is a senior correspondent for Science magazine and longtime reporter on science policy. He’s based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The election is less than 1 week away. In addition to the presidential candidates, science will also be on the ballot. In some states, voters will decide ON propositions that focus on scientific research and the environment. And in other local elections, there are science candidates in the running. So what does this all mean?

Well, my next guest is here to fill us in. Jeffrey Mervis is senior correspondent for Science Magazine. He’s based out of Washington. Welcome to Science Friday.

JEFFREY MERVIS: Hi, Ira. Thanks. Happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of these ballot propositions that focus on science. In California, voters will be deciding on Proposition 71, about allocating money to stem cell research. What are the debates happening over this?

JEFFREY MERVIS: So this is a request to extend something that was created in 2004– Institute for Regenerative Medicine. It allowed California to fund billions of dollars in research in an area that the federal government didn’t want to fund for political reasons. And now they are asking voters to approve another five and a half billion dollars in new bonds. There hasn’t really been any polling. I think the idea of the Institute has a lot of popular support. I think it’ll come down to whether people feel that in this current economy, it’s still something that they would like to see the state continue to do.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. And Nevada voters will be deciding on question 6, the renewable energy standards initiative. Why is this significant to this state?

JEFFREY MERVIS: This would double the percentage of energy that utilities need to generate from sustainable sources. It’s already been approved once, but the state constitution requires voters to say yes twice. If they do, then that will set a target for the utilities and for state regulators to monitor.

IRA FLATOW: Jeffrey, it seems like every election cycle there seems to be more, quote, “STEM” candidates. Is this year any different?

JEFFREY MERVIS: There’s a few races that I’m watching this year, that I think could be interesting. One of them, in New York, on Long Island, features someone who, if she wins would become the first woman PhD scientist in Congress. Her name is Nancy Goroff. She’s a chemist. And she is running a very strong campaign.

Another woman, who is a water resources management expert out in Montana, by the name of Kathleen Williams, actually ran in 2018 against an incumbent, and lost narrowly. Now she is running again, and she is neck and neck with her opponent. Her name is Kathleen Williams. Her opponent is the state auditor, Matt Rosendale, and she’s given a pretty good chance of winning.

I think Dr. Goroff will probably need another blue wave in order to get into office. That is, the Democrats will need to pick up several more seats, as part of a broader success at the polls. So those are two interesting races that would bring to Congress legislators, both of them women, who have a very substantial background in science, and who have talked about science in their campaigns.

Nancy Goroff’s opponent actually calls her a radical professor. And her reply to that is, if believing that climate change is real, if believing that scientific evidence is important, if believing that we need to listen to the scientists to fight COVID-19 is radical, then count me in.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s part of what I was going to ask you, because you don’t have to be a scientist to run. You can be a, quote unquote, a “normal” politician. Do people think that if they now attach the word “I’m pro-science,” that might help their efforts, especially in this COVID year?

JEFFREY MERVIS: Well, that’s an interesting question. There is a lot of support for scientists, Tony Fauci, the head of Infectious Disease Institute at NIH, being the prime example. The scientist who probably the public has more faith in than anyone, when it comes to COVID-19. That support for science doesn’t necessarily translate to scientists. And the fact that Goroff’s opponent feels that he can win support among his constituents by labeling her a radical professor tells you that it isn’t automatically a positive.

One thing that the candidates in 2018 learned is that you can’t really run on science. And Joe Cunningham is a good example. He was an ocean engineer turned lawyer, in South Carolina, which was a very Republican district. He managed to eke out a victory in 2018, not because he was a scientist, but because he supported issues like banning offshore drilling that the scientists also had a consensus on. He ran very much as a centrist, because running as a scientist, I think, is still considered somewhat elitist, at least among a lot of constituencies.

So he had to sort of walk a narrow line between saying, here’s what the science is telling us, and here is what you, as a regular voter, need to understand. And I am the right person to carry out those policies, without necessarily being a scientist myself.

IRA FLATOW: One last question. I know I’ve noticed, by watching some of the candidates on my own television, there are doctors, there are physicians running. And some of them are not running as Democrats. What actually does it mean to be a science candidate, and would that cross party lines?

JEFFREY MERVIS: That’s a very good point, Ira, because, in fact, before 2018, there were some two dozen doctors, MDs, in Congress, and almost all of them were Republican. So being a doctor didn’t necessarily mean you were a Democrat or a liberal, or that you supported the Affordable Care Act, or any of a number of other issues.

In fact, historically, the medical profession has been a pretty conservative group. So what some of the candidates, though, did as Democrats– and Lauren Underwood, who is a freshman member running for re-election, who was a health policy analyst in the Obama administration– did was they focused specifically on aspects of Obamacare that were popular with their constituents, and made the point that they understand the health care system. But the fact that they had an MD– or an RN in Lauren’s case– after their name didn’t necessarily identify them politically.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. This will be an interesting season to watch for a lot of different reasons. Thank you, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY MERVIS: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Jeffrey Mervis, senior correspondent for Science Magazine, based out of Washington.

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