Science Was Big On The Ballot This Week. Here’s What Went Down

12:10 minutes

a long line of dozens of people lining up in front of a building with trees bordering it
Voting line in Raleigh, North Carolina 2022. Credit: Shutterstock

Another chaotic election week has come and gone. Across the U.S., science was on the ballot, and people cast their votes on issues like healthcare, climate change infrastructure, conservation, and abortion policy.

Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor at WNYC in New York City, joins Ira to talk about how the science ballot initiatives panned out this week. They discuss the outcomes of the abortion initiatives, California’s move to ban flavored tobacco, and what this election could mean for the future of the U.S.’ climate goals.

Plus, they discuss the mess that is COP 27 climate conference, why this hurricane season is so strange, how an in utero procedure successfully treated a rare genetic disorder, and new footage of octopuses hurling objects at each other. 

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Segment Guests

Nsikan Akpan

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

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, an exit interview with Anthony Fauci, stepping down from his role at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a film about a plucky Martian Rover and the team that got it there. But first, science was on the ballot this week. People voted on health care, climate change infrastructure, conservation, and, perhaps the most motivational topic of them all, abortion access.

So how did these issues play out? Here with his analysis and other science stories of the week, Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor at WNYC based in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Hey, thanks for having me again.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, nice to have you. OK, let’s start with the abortion issue, perhaps the biggest health care issue this year. What kind of measures were on the ballot this year, and what happened?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, the Supreme Court overturned federal protections for abortion this summer, and to quote Michael Jordan, the voters took that personally. Ballot measures in Vermont, Michigan, and California passed to enshrine the right to abortion in their state constitutions while voters in GOP-leaning Kentucky and Montana rejected state laws that would have essentially made it impossible to get an abortion. And so both of those latter states still have other restrictions on abortion access, so that made this week’s result pretty surprising and was sort of symptomatic of a national pattern we saw in this election.

IRA FLATOW: So it doesn’t look like reproductive rights is going to go away, that issue.

NSIKAN AKPAN: No, I don’t think so. A few national exit polls showed that abortion was second only to inflation in terms of importance to voters, especially among young voters. Democrats campaigned really heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision, and it seemed to work. And that’s not a huge surprise.

Reproductive rights have seen bipartisan support in recent years in part because it’s a human rights issue but also because people really don’t like it when leaders take away their health care. But all that said, some down ballot results could imperil abortion in some states. So Republicans swept state supreme court elections in Ohio and Florida, which could have a big impact on abortion cases there going forward.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm, interesting. Another health topic on the ballot was tobacco, but I understand it’s not your conventional smokes, right?

NSIKAN AKPAN: No, yeah, we’re talking about flavored tobacco products. So in California voted to ban those products, and it follows similar bans in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and also Rhode Island. But California is the largest state to Institute a ban like this, which could have a big sway on potential similar bans on a federal level just because California has such a huge impact on the economy and also the decision making nationally. And the FDA currently is reviewing a policy to ban menthol cigarettes as well as flavored cigars.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the goal with banning flavored tobacco?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, that’s a great question. Part of the issue is that flavored tobacco products are really enticing to young people, and I think tobacco companies recognize that. It’s a great way to get new customers.

But that, obviously, creates a whole lot of issues in terms of cancer down the line, and you really don’t want young people starting on tobacco. You really don’t want anybody starting on tobacco, given all of the major health issues it causes.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. All right, let’s change gears and talk about climate change on the ballot. How could this election decide the fate of climate policy in the US?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, we’re still waiting on some election tallies for the House and also for the Senate. If we see a split Congress, I don’t think we’ll see much movement on climate and environment protections on the federal level, and I think that’s obviously also the case if both chambers are controlled by the GOP. But Rebecca Leber at Vox has a pretty great breakdown on how the results in state elections could impact things.

So Minnesota and Michigan gained control of their state legislatures and also their governor’s mansions, and so both of those places could pass new laws around requirements for electric cars. She also points out that voters prevented GOP supermajorities in Wisconsin, Montana, and North Carolina, which could prevent moves against climate action in those states. And Oregon’s election of Democrat Tina Kotek will also keep measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions on track. But if there are major changes to climate policy in the coming years, it’ll probably be through the Supreme Court, given that it’s likely that we’re going to have a split Congress.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Right. Let’s talk about other climate policy news, COP27, currently taking place in Egypt, what is that, and how is it looking?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, it’s been a little rocky. So ahead of the event, climate activist Greta Thunberg said she wasn’t attending because of greenwashing. Basically, it feels like COP27 has become a place where leaders and companies act like they’re serious about climate action without really doing anything major or adhering to the commitments that they’ve made. Each day of the conference, it seems like it ends with a call from smaller nations and island nations to tell richer nations to start paying for the harms of their carbon pollution.

IRA FLATOW: This is a common plea, isn’t it? We’ve heard this over and over again.

NSIKAN AKPAN: We’ve heard it over and over, especially over the past few years, but the richer nations just don’t seem to be adhering to those commitments. But we’ve also seen this year that some of those big players didn’t even attend, so the heads of state for China and India, two major polluters, aren’t there. The same goes for Canada and Australia, who are also pretty big polluters. Protests have also broken out over the host country, Egypt, which is being called out for human rights violations in the treatment of Allah Abdel Fattah, who is an imprisoned activist there, who’s on hunger strike.

IRA FLATOW: He’s on a hunger strike, right?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, exactly. He’s on hunger strike, and he’s also now on a water strike.

IRA FLATOW: Why am I not surprised to hear any of these things that you’re saying, you know? Nothing really changes. Yeah, it’s frustrating to hear this.

NSIKAN AKPAN: It’s frustrating. I think after the Paris Accords, we really thought, OK, now, countries are uniting. Companies are uniting. We’re going to start to see some major changes, some major pressure on companies and countries to slow their carbon pollution and to stop their carbon pollution.

But we haven’t really seen that payout, and a lot of advocates and activists are sort of saying maybe the changes are just going to have to come on the local level. And that’ll sort of apply pressure up the ladder until we start seeing some big changes.

IRA FLATOW: Or until large corporations, which I think are beginning to realize that green is good and profitable.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, but in a serious way, I think there are a lot of corporations who say, hey, we’re cutting back on our– say we’re cutting back on how much travel we do via airplanes so that way we reduce our carbon footprint. But when you really look under the hood, they’re still polluting a lot, so.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, talk is cheap.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, exactly, and leaders are– leaders of these nations are the only ones who can really apply bans, apply, say, like, hey, your company can’t really operate in our borders like this anymore. But we’re really not seeing that type of policy being put forward.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about some other news that is interesting this week. We’re not out of the woods yet in hurricane season. Hurricane Nicole just hit Florida and this tropical storm now moving up the East Coast. This is pretty late in the season, is it not, Nsikan?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Totally. That’s exactly right, and Andrea Thompson at Scientific American has a great breakdown of this. So there have only been 10 tropical storms and three hurricanes that have struck the US during November, going back to 1851.


NSIKAN AKPAN: But we’ve– yeah, exactly. But we’ve seen in recent years, we’re starting to get more and more– so it’s kind of looking like we’re getting more and more November storms. Studies that look at the length of the hurricane season, they’ve seemed to trend at the front end of the season with hurricanes appearing earlier. But yeah, now we’re starting to see these November storms, a lot of November rain, if you will.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and hurricanes get their power from warming water, warm water, like a 90-degree water. And I guess the water is staying warmer because of climate change now.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, exactly. Hurricanes form because the Atlantic Ocean becomes like a hot soup of water, and that moisture just rises. And it creates clouds, and it creates storms. And that’s how we get these big cyclones. So what these patterns tell us is that the ocean is hotter for longer during the year, and it’s, yeah, just another scary sign of climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you can’t fool with mother nature on this one. Let’s talk more about Florida getting hit with this double whammy, and we’re wishing them well. And let’s move on to some good news. A toddler with a rare genetic disorder called Pompe disease– I never heard of that– was successfully treated while she was in utero. That sounds amazing. What’s going on there?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, if people want to see more details on this story, it’s a really– it’s a heartening story by Erin Garcia de Jesús at Science News. But basically, there’s this disease called Pompe disease, which it’s pretty rare. Only about one out of every 138,000 babies born globally will have something like this, and it’s an enzyme deficiency, which basically means that the fetus doesn’t have a protein that the cells need to live, to survive.

What doctors and scientists did was they caught the disease after the mother was already pregnant, and then they started to infuse this enzyme into her. And then that would just filter into the fetus, and it kept the pregnancy alive. It kept the pregnancy going.

Now that the kid’s born, she’s 16 months old. She’s really healthy. There’s a really cute picture of her at Science News. But yeah, she has to get weekly infusions of this protein, but it’s going to keep her alive.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, this could be like a test case for other treatments.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, exactly. If you don’t have genetic screening, these diseases can just sort of pop up from time to time, and I know that there’ve been some other conditions that have been treated in this way. There was a sweating disorder and also a blood disorder that received similar treatments, and they were good. So it’ll be interesting to see if in-utero treatments can expand going forward.

IRA FLATOW: Lastly, I want to talk about a new study this week that shows a weird funny behavior of a critter we love so much here on this program, the octopus, well, actually, octopuses throwing things at each other. Tell me about that.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, so researchers from Alaska Pacific University, they headed down to Australia to Jervis Bay, and they tossed a bunch of cameras into the water just to record octopus behavior. And they found this really random behavior, where the octopuses were sort of throwing things at each other.

IRA FLATOW: They curl them up like a frisbee, release it like a frisbee with their arm like that.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah, they were throwing debris. They were throwing food leftovers. It’s hard to say why they were doing this. The researchers don’t really have any clues on the why octopus were doing it.

But they were able– they’re pretty sure that the octopuses are throwing things at each other because the target of the thrower would often duck.


NSIKAN AKPAN: So it does seem like a pretty intentional maneuver. So we’ll have to see if the Seattle Mariners, if they need closing pitcher, maybe they should check the seas for these octopi, the octopuses, the octopitchers.


IRA FLATOW: Nsikan, always great to have you, always good stuff you bring us.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Thank you. Appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Nsikan Akpan, a health and science editor at WNYC based in New York City.

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Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

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