Here’s How Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Addresses Science

12:06 minutes

a white man with gray hair in suit sits at a desk and signs a piece of paper. in front of the desk is a circular emblem that reads "the president of the united states" and an eagle on it
President Joe Biden signing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Monday, November 15, 2021, at the White House. Credit: Cameron Smith/The White House/Flickr/Public Domain

President Joe Biden signed a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill into law this Monday. The measure focuses on a range of sectors. It would funnel billions into cleaning up pollution in the air and water with efforts that include eliminating lead service lines and cleaning up old, polluted manufacturing sites. The bill will also invest $7.5 billion to create a large-scale network of electric vehicle chargers across the country.

In other big news this week, a new study confirms that masks are highly effective in combating COVID-19, reducing incidence of the disease by as much as 53% on its own. Researchers say this finding is significant and add that when masks are used in addition to other protective measures, like vaccines and hand washing, people can feel confident in their safety.

Joining guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk through these and other big science stories of the week is Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Public Radio in New York City.

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Segment Guests

Nsikan Akpan

Nsikan Akpan is Health and Science Editor for WNYC in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

ROXANNE KHAMSI: This is Science Friday. I’m Roxanne KHAMSI. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about COVID-19 testing ahead of the holidays. Plus, the Big Bang Theory of cancer.

But first, President Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law this past Monday. In it is a lot of funding towards cleaning up pollution in the air and water. It’ll also invest in public health measures with a focus on underfunded communities. There is a lot to unpack in this bill and how it relates to science.

So joining me now to walk us through is my guest, Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Public Radio in New York, a friend of the show and a friend of mine. Welcome back to the show, Nsikan.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Thanks for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Let’s dive into this infrastructure bill. I think a lot of people think about things like bridges and roads when infrastructure is brought up. But there’s a lot of stuff here in this bill that’s related to science. So what are some of the big things that stick out to you?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, first this infrastructure bill is massive. It’s a huge investment in terms of cleaning up the environment, and Vox has a great breakdown of what the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could mean for cleaning up pollution in different communities. This is a $1.2 trillion act that passed after months of debate that actually gradually whittled down parts of the original American Jobs Plan that President Biden released at the end of March. And when it comes to the environment and climate change, that process left some big winners and some big losers and also what I would call some big wait and see policy decisions. But still, this new law comes with some clear winners and losers.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So who are some of the winners?

NSIKAN AKPAN: So the biggest winner is, arguably, cleaner air near highways and urban areas. So the Infrastructure Act comes with about $2.5 billion for electrifying school buses. There’s also $17 billion for reducing pollution near ports and inspiring the production of electrified tugboats and freight trucks, the types of things that we see moving in and out of industrial areas.

The electric grid is also a huge winner. So there’s $65 billion devoted towards modernizing the grid and also building it out, expanding it into new places. I think that could be, particularly, helpful with fighting wildfires in California. So part of the money will be used to take those power lines, those transmission lines that we see running overhead on poles, and bury them underground where they can’t spark fires.

Expanding the grid would also put the country in position to build more renewable energy plants and then just plug them into the grid. And I think, in that vein, there’s about $500 million for new nuclear and hydro-thermal projects, as well as some carbon capture for fossil fuel plants to make them a little bit more carbon friendly, to the degree that they can be made carbon friendly. And there’s also $6 billion for large scale battery production

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Oh. I mean, it sounds like there’s a lot of focus on fighting pollution and things like that. But you alluded to the fact that there are some losers as well. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. So the biggest loser might be Biden’s original American Jobs Plan that was released back this spring. So the Sierra Club put together a nice table of where that plan started in terms of its funding for environmental and climate investments and where we are now. So those investments currently are at 46% of what Biden originally proposed. If you consider the money that’s in the new law and also what’s being proposed in the latest version of the Build Back Better bill that’s under consideration.

I think carbon control is also probably another loser. We have– we’re facing this climate emergency where we need to reduce carbon emissions as fast as we can in order to stop all of these disasters that we are already saying. And so Vox cited a Princeton analysis that suggests that the infrastructure law would only reduce carbon emissions by 1% by 2030. The Build Back Better bill might aid that mission, but only if some of those environmental pieces can survive the House and Senate deliberations.

And there are a lot of other things in that bill, like paid family leave and also a lot of child care funding that is going to be strongly debated. So we’ll have to see if the climate elements survive.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It sounds massive. So let’s move on to some other massive news about COVID-19. And there’s been a study out confirming what a lot of us have thought to be true. That masks work. Can you tell us a little bit about this new study?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. The Hill had this news story about this study with the headline “Huge new study finds masks most effective public health measure in fighting COVID-19.” And I want to just do a quick fact check on that headline, because they’re saying, oh it’s a massive analysis of 72 studies across the world. That was published this week.

But in truth, what we’re talking about is this systematic review. So it’s a group of researchers who tried to find all the papers they could on this topic. And this topic we’re talking about is technically called non-pharmaceutical interventions, so masking, social distancing, the types of stuff that we can do around behavior to reduce the transmission of infectious disease.

So this review started with about 36,000 papers that they just screened to say, OK, is this on the topic of public health measures for COVID-19. From there, they whittled that down to about 650 and then they were, OK, were these studies well designed? Do they have potentially too much bias? And then from there they got down to 72 papers. With mask wearing, it showed that it can reduce the– it can essentially cut the incidence of COVID-19 in half, which is good to know, right?

There’s been a lot of debate about wearing masks in public. I think, we’ve created this false paradigm between getting the vaccine and taking off your mask. But I think, this is really showing that masks are a valuable part of how we keep people safe, especially in scenarios where they can’t socially distance.

Because we know that the vaccines are very good at stopping infections. They’re extremely good at stopping severe disease, but we still get breakthrough infections even though they’re very rare. And so I think if we can reduce that even further, it would put us in a better place, overall, to break coronavirus transmission for good and then be able to really reopen safely.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And cutting risk by half is quite a lot. Although, vaccines seem to do even more when you compare them separately but combining these things together, I guess is the point?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. I mean I think we take the results for the vaccines, right? We know that if you have just your two shots of Pfizer or Moderna or Johnson Johnson, you’re going to reduce your chances of infection by 80% to 90%, depending on which vaccine you’re taking. If you get a booster, we know, OK. It’s popping you back– It’s like, Oh, you’re so much better. You have way more immunity. So then, you’re lowering your chance of infection even by more to like 95%, back to where we originally were before Delta decided to power through.

So they’re saying both are doing well, right? But together, they will combine to give extra layers of protection to everybody.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Speaking of getting vaccinated, the FDA today authorized COVID booster shots for all US adults. The CDC still needs to sign off on this, but it’s a big step. And we’ll be talking about boosters later in the show.

But let’s move on to another vaccine for now, one against Lyme disease, which is really interesting to me, because I grew up in New England and Lyme disease was definitely something we all talked about.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. Lyme disease is like is a long-term scourge and infects a lot of people, close to half a million every single year in the United States. Most people are going to survive it. They’re going to be completely fine. But there is a proportion that develops chronic Lyme disease and it can become very problematic for them for years.

So this vaccine is interesting because it is an mRNA vaccine, like Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines against COVID. What’s cool about this mRNA vaccine is that it’s essentially trying to create an itch response. So what it’s doing is it’s targeting the proteins that are in the saliva of ticks, and ticks carry the germ that causes Lyme disease.

And so what they’ve seen in guinea pigs is that you vaccinate them, and then you put a tick with Lyme disease on the guinea pig. And it creates these itch marks, these rashes. And so the idea would be that, if it was a person instead of a Guinea pig, they would be, oh, what is this? Oh, I’m itchy right here. Oh, there’s a tick on me. And then you pull the tick off.

And what we know about the transmission of Lyme disease is that it typically takes about 36 hours from the tick bite– the tick is just sitting there sucking blood– it typically takes 36 hours and so if you can catch that tick early enough, you can reduce transmission. And so that’s what they found with these guinea pigs. Once they saw the itch marks, they pulled the ticks off and they were like, oh, these Guinea pigs didn’t develop Lyme disease or they didn’t catch the bacteria.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So that sounds really interesting. It sounds like the vaccine is keeping the ticks from getting in or doing their nasty thing before the Lyme disease bacteria can get in the body.

I do think that it’s time for a little bit of a story about some cute animals since we were talking about some nasty ticks. One thing that’s come across the radar this week is there’s a lovely story about ducklings. Nsikan, can you tell us about the latest duckling news we’ve been blessed with?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. So this is from one of my favorite science writers, Emily Conover. She spotted this study from Scotland, where they tried to figure out why a mother duck and her ducklings will swim in a row.

And so what people should know about is when you swim– when you do a stroke, you’re doing the freestyle in the Olympics. When you push against the water with your hand, the water is actually pushing back. And when you create waves, those waves when they hit you are actually pushing back against you. So that front stroke that you do with your hands can actually create a wave that pushes against the back part of your body and slows you down.

And so the same thing happens with ducklings. So they’re splashing along, and they’re making a wave that is also pushing back against them. And so what this study did was it created a model to show that by swimming in a straight line, the mother duck is creating a wave in her wake. But if a duckling can get at the right spot along that wave when it crests, they can actually ride it like a surfer. So if they’re in front of where that wave crest, it pushes them forward and makes swimming a little more efficient.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: And they pass it on to their brothers and sisters. So it’s a make way for ducklings story, right?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, exactly. Yeah exactly make way for ducklings.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, that’s all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Public Radio in New York.

Thanks for joining us.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yep. Thank you.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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