The Politics Of Science: Voters Have An Important Voice

28:45 minutes

A hand reaching forward to place a ballot in a ballot box. Drawings of the earth, coronavirus, a fish, and an oil container with spout surround the hand.
Illustration credit: Emma Gometz and Shutterstock

This November’s general election season covers every level of government, from Congress at the federal level, to state governors and local ballot initiatives. Also on the ballot are many issues where understanding science better might result in better policy—think zoning questions about building next to rising seas or fire-prone wildlands, or questions about drug legalization and abortion access. Even whether to invest in education that might create more STEM workers—that’s a science question too. 

Ira talks to Rachel Kerestes of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s ‘Science is US’ initiative, and Howard Learner of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. They cover region-specific and state-specific science concerns, the need to connect more policy makers to scientific expertise, and how voters can have a voice in science issues even at the local and state level.

Further Reading

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: It is election season, and you may have your eyes on your state’s Senate race, maybe a governor. But you may be surprised to hear that science is also on the ballot. And I just don’t mean that some candidates think climate change is a hoax. No, there are over 100 statewide ballot measures scheduled.

Coloradans will be voting on decriminalizing and regulating psychedelics and mushrooms, fungi. In Arkansas, Maryland, North and South Dakota, voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana use. Voters in Michigan are debating whether to explicitly protect the right to an abortion, and even officials at the local level, I have to say– they all have a say in science, like think about managing power utilities and protecting local wetlands.

We’re going to talk about all of this, including issues that are not up for a vote but should be. What do you think? And we are living– we’re live in the studio today, which means, yes, we want your calls. Where do you see science on your November ballot?

Maybe you don’t see science there, and you think it should be. Make the call to tell us but only if you make the call, our number 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Or you can tweet us @SciFri.

Let me introduce my guest, Rachel Kerestes. This is executive director of Science is US at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She joins us from Jacksonville, Florida. Welcome, Rachel.

RACHEL KERESTES: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Howard Learner is president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center that’s based in Chicago. Welcome, Howard.

HOWARD LEARNER: Good to join you today, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I just listed some of the ballot items, and I alluded to some candidate matchups. Now, we’re not here to make any endorsements today. That’s not what we’re doing.

But I do want to help people understand where science is in their election options. How would you begin to explain the choices voters have in science policy this fall? And Rachel, let me begin with you.

RACHEL KERESTES: Well, I think that’s actually a huge question, Ira, because one of the things we work on is trying to bridge that gap between science and policy. And the thing is is that science and evidence can actually be employed on almost any public policy issue, even those things that don’t seem obvious.

So you mentioned just a moment ago some of those local issues, for example, questions of development. How much should we build? Where should we build? What sort of density should we have in our community? Those are very much decisions that can be driven by science and evidence, and so there’s almost every topic you can think of is something that could be science related.

IRA FLATOW: Science touches everything, doesn’t it?

RACHEL KERESTES: It really does.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I know that you work at Science is US to connect legislators to scientists and to help them understand science better. Why does this feel so important to you?

RACHEL KERESTES: It feels important to us, honestly, because we know that there’s a gap between scientists and engineers and policymakers, and we recognize our part in creating that gap. And we think really that science and engineering and evidence can help policymakers make more efficient and more effective decisions.

And so it’s important to us just because we think we have something useful to offer in the policy debate, and that’s– as you said earlier, it’s a nonpartisan thing. Science doesn’t take sides, but it can help you. And it’s a very important tool that any policymaker can rely on.

IRA FLATOW: Howard, I know that your work focuses on environmental issues, especially in the Midwest. Tell me what is at the top of people’s minds right now.

HOWARD LEARNER: Right now, protecting safe, clean water for people to drink, climate change, which affects everybody, and the Great Lakes. And on two of those, it really is getting pretty partisan.

So when it comes to safe, clean drinking water, the Supreme Court had a case earlier this week, the Sackett case. The State and the Federal Governments are fighting on who has jurisdiction to protect wetlands, community waterways, and that’s breaking down on something of partisan lines. And it’s coming out as an election issue.

It’s a sleeper issue, but everybody cares about safe, clean water, particularly if you’re in Western Lake Erie, toxic algae blooms almost every summer. When it comes to the Great Lakes, it’s bipartisan in the Midwest. There really isn’t much of a difference. Republicans and Democrats, younger people and older people, everybody loves the Great Lakes. It’s where we live, where we work, where we play.

Climate change, we know there’s a partisan divide. And in states like Wisconsin, where sound science drives sound policy, Mayor Daley of Chicago famously said, good policy is good politics. Senator Ron Johnson, who’s running for reelection, a Republican, is pretty much a climate denier. Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who’s running against him, a Democrat, is saying climate change is a major challenge for Wisconsin.

Governor Pritzker in Illinois, Governor Whitmer in Michigan are running for reelection on what they’re doing for climate change solutions. So that one’s getting pretty partisan between the two parties. But when it comes to water and particularly the Great Lakes, everybody’s concerned about it, and we know that sound science drives sound policy.

IRA FLATOW: We have a comment from MJ in Grand Folks– Grand Forks, North Dakota on the SciFri VoxPop app.

MJ: My biggest concern is that the oceans have been warming regularly yearly, and this causes a lot of commotion in our climate and problems. I don’t really care about the ballots. I care about what are people willing to do to stop the oceans from warming up.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, wow, Rachel. How do you answer that? How do you answer that on a ballot?

RACHEL KERESTES: Well, I think it’s a little bit hard to answer specifically on a ballot because, of course, the science behind what’s happening in the oceans is very complicated. And that’s one of the tricks here. How do you boil down a very complicated scientific question into something that can be actionable public policy and particularly if it’s a ballot initiative?

But what I think you want to do and what we try to encourage policymakers to do is, first of all, seek out the evidence. Talk to the experts. Hear what they’re saying, and figure out how you can put it into context.

We work primarily at the state and local government level, and state and local policymakers don’t have a lot of bandwidth to tackle a subject. So like a county commissioner here in Florida, for example, where I live, is not going to solve the problem of how oceans are warming.


RACHEL KERESTES: But they can approach the questions related to their community, asking, what are the best outcomes I can achieve for my community? How can I use science and evidence to influence those outcomes? And then what’s my plan to get there from where I’m at now?

IRA FLATOW: And so what would surprise people most about that issue that you’re working on as something that may not seem like an obvious place for science and policy but where you’re hard at work, Rachel?

RACHEL KERESTES: Well, I think when it comes to ocean policy, for example, we spend a lot of time just talking about issues along the coastline. I mentioned development earlier, but that’s a key one. What do we build? Where do we build? How do we build?

What kind of infrastructure, what kind of utilities do we rely on? How do we– you mentioned protecting wetlands earlier. How do we protect the wetlands that we have?

So it’s all of those sub questions underneath there, which, granted, makes it very difficult for individual voters to say, I want to vote along the evidence, because it’s complicated.

IRA FLATOW: Right. 844-724-8255 is our number. Let’s go to the phones because lots of people would like to jump in here. Let’s go to Noland in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Nolan.

NOLAN: Hey, how’s it going?

IRA FLATOW: Hey, there. Go ahead.

NOLAN: Yeah, it’s kind of some common sense stuff, but I feel like, from an ecology standpoint, kind of encouraging people to not have manicured grass from like a policy standpoint, kind of take away the power of HOAs and force developers to plant native species in different areas, and I’ve also heard terrifying things about the impacts of domesticating elk for meat that could have a disastrous– so just things like that I think are overlooked.

IRA FLATOW: Are there– so they’re not on the ballot, and these are things you wish were on the ballot is what you’re saying.

NOLAN: Yeah, defund the HOA, you know what I mean? Get rid of your lawn.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Thanks for taking time to be with us and for joining us today.

NOLAN: Yeah, happy Friday.

IRA FLATOW: Happy Friday to you. Let’s go to another phone call. Let’s go to Jonas in Charleston, South Carolina. Hi, Jana.

JANA: Well, hi. We just missed the bullet of the last hurricane, so we’re quite aware of the impact of climate change. And of course, we have been flooding even on–


JANA: –non-hurricane days, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Sorry to–

JANA: So of course–

IRA FLATOW: –hear that.

JANA: –we care about that. [INAUDIBLE] the essential challenge of climate change and the Supreme Court is not allowing the president to regulate– the EPA to regulate CO2. What we really need is more funding for the inventors and to build demonstration plants or like with advanced biofuel feedstocks, electricity from wood chips and waste products. We can do this, but there’s no funding to do it.

The only funding goes to big universities. USDA has a pitiful budget for helping work on– we have an atmosphere in the first place because of green plants. We had a little ice age in the late 1700s because there are so many trees that grew back after the Indians left North America to– were driven out.

IRA FLATOW: So you want money for small inventors.

JANA: [INAUDIBLE] no funding.

IRA FLATOW: You think small inventors–

JANA: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: –are not being appreciated enough and funded.

JANA: Well, look in the ’90s, when we were in the doldrums, where did the innovation come from, Bill Gates sitting in the hotel room with his friends and Steve Jobs in the garage, right? But without funding to scale up, we can’t demonstrate these new technologies we’re developing. I’m developing an energy [INAUDIBLE] for food, fuel, and feed, and it gets four and a half times as much ethanol per acre as corn with 10% of the nitrogen and 10% of the water but can’t get funding to build a demonstration plant.

IRA FLATOW: All right. I’m going to have to let you go, Jana. Thank you for voicing your concerns. Howard, what do you say to that about not enough funding for small inventors investors and inventors?

HOWARD LEARNER: One of the biggest drivers is the Farm Bill when it comes to the sorts of issues and concerns your listener was just commenting on, and the Farm Bill, starting in 2000, Senator– bipartisan basis, Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa began pushing the Biomass Research and Development Act, the purpose of which was to take some of the technologies your listener was describing and provide some research and support for them and help to get things moving.

But look at what Congress just did in the Inflation Reduction Act, tremendous tax credit incentives for solar energy and storage. That’s really going to boost that and move that forward and move innovation forward.

IRA FLATOW: OK, I’m going to have –to

HOWARD LEARNER: So that’s an important step.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to these questions. Howard, you talked about the Great Lakes regions? What about other regions around the country? What are some of the other environmental issues they may be facing?

HOWARD LEARNER: It’s interesting. When you look at sort of the great places that people focus around, certainly the Great Lakes, for us Midwesterners, the Great Lakes is where we live, work, and play. Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades– Rachel, you can talk about the Everglades– other regions like that, all of them are suffering these days from toxic algae blooms.

So where does that come from? That’s about agricultural runoff. It’s about manure coming from large animal feedlots. It’s about excessive fertilizer and phosphorus that’s coming from, in the Midwest, corn and soy. In Florida, it’s coming from the sugar industry.

We have a national problem with Western Lake Erie and the Great Lakes with Chesapeake Bay, with the Everglades with toxic algae blooms, and that’s something that everybody understands. Everybody sees it and goes, yuck. The science is pretty clear. We know what causes it– excess phosphorus.

And we’ve got to get the political will and the policy drivers to do something about it. Public support is overwhelming in the Great Lakes, and I know the data is pretty compelling as well in Florida as well as it is in Chesapeake Bay. So that’s an example of where we know, from a science standpoint, what the problem is. We know how to solve it. We need the political will to get some serious progress going in multiple regions in the country.

IRA FLATOW: Rachel, I should have told people that you’re the executive director of Science is US at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. What do you see as other important issues on the ballots or that are not on the ballot?

RACHEL KERESTES: Sure, well, when it comes to things that are driven by science and evidence that we see in our conversations, particularly with state legislators, around the country, we see big conversations about workforce development, not just STEM workforce and health care workforce. But that’s a hot topic, and it’s a place where science and evidence can play a role.

We were talking about climate but, specifically, the impacts of extreme weather events, from the [INAUDIBLE] in Iowa to the wildfires in the West to, obviously, Hurricane Ian, which we just experienced here in Florida. Electric vehicles are a hot topic, which I know you’ve already talked about during the show today.

IRA FLATOW: But you can’t avoid it. It’s a big topic.

RACHEL KERESTES: You can’t. It’s a huge topic, and it’s top of mind pretty much in every state we’ve talked to. At the recent national conference of state legislatures meeting, the session on electric vehicles, you couldn’t even get in the room. It was so packed.

And the other thing a lot of state legislators are talking about around the country are mental health issues, from sort of things related to the pandemic and the impact on children all the way through, again, the health care workforce and the mental health workforce. So those are things, in some cases, they are on the ballot. In other cases, they’re not. But those are kind of the top of mind science-related policy issues that we see pretty much in every state around the country.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, lots of new phone calls coming in. Let’s go to Kevin in Fresno. Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN: Hello, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

KEVIN: Well, I’m calling– all these issues intersect so perfectly for where I am. We’re in the San Joaquin River watershed below the Sierra Nevada mountains, site of the Big Creek Fire a couple of years ago and ongoing fires.

I’m working on a local county, a couple of county transportation sales taxes, and our issues are climate resiliency and equity in transportation spending. And we’re having a great challenge convincing local elected officials that these are important related issues, and workforce development is another aspect of this. What we find is that people want to continue in their old ways of using our local transportation sales tax dollars to leverage state and federal dollars to sprawl and actually building highways up into the wildfire zones while ignoring electrification.

IRA FLATOW: That’s got to be very frustrating. That’s got to be frustrating for you, that you can’t get them to change.

KEVIN: I fought this same fight 20 years ago when we were arguing for transit-oriented development and other further-thinking, forward-thinking projects. It’s very frustrating. It’s almost like one cannot talk about climate change. The activist community leaders on the renewable committee argued just to get on the committee for 19– for nine months.

It’s a conservative county, and how to break through with data perhaps would help. But how to integrate that in a narrative that breaks through the current objection to changing– now, our state, I should say, is changing our transportation planning priorities in a significant way. The governor is leading tremendously there. Local counties don’t want to follow.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, all right. Well, thank you for taking time to share your thoughts with us, and good luck.

KEVIN: Measure C and measure T.

IRA FLATOW: OK, Rachel, how much of what we see that people know about is for a lack of science education and how science works?

RACHEL KERESTES: I think that is part of it. I also think that part of it is– and this is on us, on the scientific and engineering community– is that scientists and engineers aren’t really trained to communicate outside of our own networks. So we’re not trained to communicate with policymakers or communicate with the public, and there’s a big challenge in doing that.

So it’s not that you want the average person to have the same knowledge as someone with a PhD. That’s not going to happen. But what we need to do is find better ways as scientists and engineers to communicate to the public in ways that they can understand. So I think that that burden is really more on our side than it is on the public side.

IRA FLATOW: So do you think that scientists, then, should be going out– and I ask this of Howard also– and becoming, I guess, proactive in talking to people about these issues, Howard?

HOWARD LEARNER: Well, let me tell a little story, Ira. What we found out from doing some market research, here in the Midwest, Big Ten University scientists– and those of you who follow football know that the Big Ten is now more than the Big Ten. But the in-state university scientists are terrific messengers. People trust in Michigan, the scientists from University of Michigan and from Michigan State, and people in Indiana trust the scientists from Indiana University and so on and so forth.

So the Environmental Law and Policy Center, we commissioned the 18 Big Ten University scientists and Canadian scientists to do a study on the impact of climate change on the Great Lakes. And it’s exactly as Rachel was describing. It’s very dense scientific data, and what we did was we worked a lot with the scientists to take the data and make it in a form that was easier to understand for the public.

So we got the policy people and the communications people working with the scientists. But people trust the Big Ten University scientists. They’re terrific messengers, and when they talked about the effect of extreme weather on the Great Lakes, when they talked about what was causing toxic algae, how to deal with invasive species, people listen and trust it.

So it’s exactly what Rachel is saying. We need to get the sound science there, and we need to wrap it up in a policy framework that can make a difference. And we need to help explain things in ways that are not dumbed down, that are smart science, but that are more intelligible to people.

But it’s the local in-state University scientists people really trust. They’re great messengers, and that’s helped move public policy on the Great Lakes in a lot of ways. As I said earlier, when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes, it’s a bipartisan– it’s not even bipartisan. It’s a nonpartisan issue.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what you’re saying is what we’re finding out is true about talking to people is that people– it’s hard to change anyone’s mind when their minds are made up but that people they trust and their friends can help sway those opinions. And that’s what you’re– the people they trust at their local universities.

HOWARD LEARNER: That’s right, and when you look at it not just as climate change writ large– and we know that’s a divisive issue publicly. When you talk about it in terms of the Great Lakes, which everybody in the Midwest loves, then it puts climate change within a frame that people are saying, well, if it’s having an impact on Lake Michigan, which is where I go and swim and enjoy the beach and so forth, OK, now I’m feeling a little bit closer to home here. It’s becoming real to me. It’s a different frame for thinking about climate change rather than some of the debates we’re having politically that have just become so partisan and so divided.

IRA FLATOW: I get it. Let’s go to the phones. Lisa in Rochester, New York. Hi, Lisa.

LISA: Hello there.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

LISA: Well, I want to thank Science Friday for the great job it does in educating those of us who haven’t got great science educations or orientations about these issues, and one of the issues I wish we’d think more about funding is training our judges in science issues. State and federal level, most of our judges were– their last science education was before cell phones were invented, and these issues come before them as gatekeepers, where they decide whether we’re going to even decide the issue or not. So that’s what I’d like to see.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great, great topic. What do you think of that, Rachel?

RACHEL KERESTES: Well, it’s actually something we have programs on at AAAS. So we agree with you, and it’s something that we’ve been working on. Just to go back to the previous point for one quick second, though, to that question of how we change behaviors, we were talking about types of science that were underfunded. Well, there is no branch of science that’s more underfunded than the social sciences, and if we really want to figure out how to change behavior, how to connect with people, how to move things forward, we really need to look at social and behavioral sciences.

IRA FLATOW: I want to go back– that’s an interesting point. I want to go back to something we were talking about earlier. I mentioned abortion earlier. It would be hard to avoid talking about reproductive health care this year and the access to it, and several states are looking to either ban or preserve that right. Rachel, is this an issue where you see legislators seeking more information, or has everyone kind of already made up their minds on this?

RACHEL KERESTES: We know it’s a hot topic. It’s not one that legislators have engaged with us on, so I’m afraid I can’t give you details on that conversation. But I do know from some of our colleagues in biological-science-specific societies that they’ve been engaging a lot on that topic with legislators across the country.

IRA FLATOW: Howard, do you have any opinions on that?

HOWARD LEARNER: Well, for example, you asked about ballot measures in Michigan. There’s a ballot measure coming up on questions of reproductive rights. I really think most of the polling data, Ira, shows that people are pretty stuck in terms of what they think when it comes to reproductive rights.

Now, as technology emerges and as we get to questions of both viability and what’s an acceptable procedure and what’s not, there may be a room for science to much better inform people of some of the real options and some of the real possibilities. But that’s an issue right now in which the country is so divided and, in some ways, where people come down as surprising.

I’m thinking about what the vote was on the referendum in Kansas several months ago. I think it was 60-40, if you will, more on the reproductive rights side, and that really opened up a lot of eyes. So you’re going to see more ballot measures coming on reproductive rights, like in Michigan, this fall. And I think increasingly, we’re going to see ballot measures moving forward on climate change if state legislatures don’t step up and act the way they’re doing in Illinois, California, and a number of other states, probably Minnesota coming next.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about science politics, what’s on the ballot this year, with Rachel Kerestes and Howard Learner. Just to pick up on that issue that Howard was talking about, Rachel, overall, how is severe weather, like Hurricane Ian, like wildfires, touching policy interests around the country?

RACHEL KERESTES: It’s a top topic everywhere around the country, and I think that this is one of those places where the language matters. In some states, they’re talking about it as climate change. In other states, they’re talking about it as extreme weather or disaster-related things. But everybody’s talking about it. And how to solve these issues, how to create resilience, and all of the things related to that, there’s conversations happening pretty much in every state, depending on what the weather event may be.

IRA FLATOW: And let me go to Ryan in California, who’s going to touch on this issue as someone who lives in California knows about droughts and fires. Hi, Ryan. Welcome to Science Friday.

RYAN: Hi, Ira. How are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

RYAN: So something I’d like to hear on the ballot and just talk about generally more is focus on the entire hydrological cycle. So in many towns all across United States, a hydrologic cycle has been broken. And so you mentioned California here. You hear about fire and drought often. You’ll hear about water rights a lot.

And conversation often is downstream centric, so focus on end users. And really, this water comes from all the way up in the mountains and slowly makes it way down [INAUDIBLE] the ocean. And we tend to manage it very poorly, so almost like it’s a plumbing problem, culverts and erosion when it does rain, and you want to leave the landscape very quickly. So many problems we’re talking about in the conversation today, such as climate change, drought, fire, a lot of these can be mitigated with a healthy hydrological cycle. I just [INAUDIBLE] yeah, go ahead.

IRA FLATOW: Ryan, do you find that local politicians talk about these issues a lot as things that they need to take care of and to be on their radar screen?

RYAN: No. Well, not that I’ve been– I don’t know they’ve– the politicians really have a great understanding of the complete hydrological cycle, and I think that’s probably what part of the issue is.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm, yeah, OK. Thank you for taking time to talk with us, and good luck out there.

RYAN: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I have a tweet from a farmland owner. I’m going to go see if I can read it right off the tweet. It says, many conservation-related issues and candidates who can make a difference on the ballot, support them on November 8, and support regulations for no-till and cover crops on corn and soybean land in the upper Midwest. Howard, you have the last word on that. Good things to vote on?

HOWARD LEARNER: Those are good things to vote on. Look, when it comes to water, the public is ahead of the politicians, and if you do the polling in the Midwest, whether it’s in the Toledo area around Lake Erie or Southwest Wisconsin around the Mississippi River and the Wisconsin River, it’s all about the water.


HOWARD LEARNER: And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Republican or Democrat or young or old or racial divides or gender, people need safe, clean water, and this is one where the public is saying, we got to take some actions on this. And the politicians aren’t there yet. I think we’re going to hear much, much more about water going forward, and that’s going to become a ballot box issue.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Rachel Kerestes, Howard Learning, thank you both for taking time to be with us today. We’re not going to be taking your thoughts on this one anymore, but we have a little ballot scavenger hunt for you. Visit sciencefriday.com/ballot to explore how science is appearing on your and your neighbor states’ ballots this November, sciencefriday.com/ballot.

Copyright © 2022 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/.


Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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 Kyle Marian Viterbo

Kyle Marian Viterbo is a community manager at Science Friday. She loves sharing hilarious stories about human evolution, hidden museum collections, and the many ways Indiana Jones is a terrible archaeologist.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More