Science in Society Laboratories

Seminar (10 ECTS, 3 SWS)

Ulrike Felt
Maximilian Fochler

Susanne Öchsner
Andrea Schikowitz

Are you interested in understanding the dynamics of public controversies around science and technology related issues? Do you want to learn to analyze them in an interdisciplinary environment? And what about developing the skills necessary to engage in debates where both scientific knowledge and societal values matter?

What is this course about?

Scientific knowledge and new technologies are changing our society. On the one hand they open up new possibilities to solve societal problems. On the other hand they often raise issues that have to be widely discussed, decided and regulated. Scientists from all disciplines should be capable to participate competently in these discussions. 

At the same time, there is hardly any societal debate or political decision-making process that happens without considering scientific expertise. Scientific knowledge is expected to provide orientation and to lead to better solutions. Particularly when it comes to controversial topics, what counts as relevant and reliable knowledge, which societal values should be taken into account and in what ways all of this should be included in political decisions is at stake.

The aim of this course is to develop students' skill to identify actors' positions in controversial societal debates, to systematically analyze their relationship to scientific expertise and, based on this, to develop recommendations. This is a highly valued qualification in many areas of the contemporary labor market (e.g. policy advice, science communication etc.).


Sugar is a substantial part of our diet, in the form of sweets and desserts as well as in its hidden form as ingredient in soft drinks and convenience products. Its effects on human health, in particular the connection between sugar consumption and cardiovascular diseases are controversially discussed. 


(c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight

Fracking is a form of natural gas production, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into a wellbore under high pressure. The goal is to set free the natural gas enclosed in the sediments. This practice and its effects on the environment, particularly the potential contamination of water and soil, are highly controversial.

Endocrine disruptors

Endocrine disruptors are chemical substances that can interfere with or disrupt the endocrine system. Humans and animals can absorb these substances via a variety of sources, e.g. through food, cosmetics or pesticides. The role of substances with endocrine effects on the human body and human health are controversially discussed.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Since the mid-2000s, beekeepers across the globe observe a new and dramatic form of mass death of bees (Colony Collapse Disorder). Unusually severe losses of colonies over the winter and the disappearance of worker bees diminish the bee population in many countries. Causes and consequences of this phenomenon are in the focus of an intense debate.

What happens in the course?

In this course students learn -  in small interdisciplinary groups - to systematically map a current debate at the intersection of science, technology and society. Step-by-step and in close interaction with the lecturers the students will learn approaches and tools to analyze debates, apply them to a specific case study and receive feedback. They will search for documents, identify positions and conduct expert interviews. They will learn to prepare the results of their analyses in various formats, to present and discuss them. The assumed goal is to advise policy makers and help them to better understand the relationship between value positions and scientific expertise in a debate.

In this seminar we will work in three groups on the debates on sugar in nutrition, the health effects of endocrine disruptors, and the consequences of fracking for humans and the environment. We consider these debates as our “laboratory” in which the students investigate the interplay of science, technology and society. The case of the Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees will be used by the lecturers to practically demonstrate the mapping of a specific problem.  

Tutorial support is integrated into the course and will be provided throughout the semester.  

Depending on the students’ needs the course will be held either in German or in English.

What will students learn in this course?

  • concepts and tools to analyze the interplay of science, technology and society
  • the application of these new skills in working on specific debates at the intersection of science, technology and society
  • techniques of searching for, assessing and preparing information
  • techniques and forms of presentation
  • thinking and collaborating in interdisciplinary spaces
  • the ability to reflect on one’s own disciplinary perspective and on the responsibility of science in society
  • the ability to understand and assess the entanglement of societal values and scientific expertise in the debates

For which study programs can I complete the course?

The course can be completed for modules in different study programs.

  • In the master program Chemistry the 10 ECTS can be completed in the „Modulgruppe Fachverbreiterung und Ergänzungsstudien“. In the master program Biological Chemistry the 10 ECTS can be completed in the „Wahlmodul Fachverbreiterung“.In the master program Chemistry & Technology of Materials the 10 ECTS can be completed in the „Wahlmodul“. In case of questions concerning the three master programs of SPL 27 please contact the study program director (Lothar Brecker).
  • In the master program Earth Sciences 10 ECTS will be approved in "Individual Electives" (MA-ERD-17.0).
  • In the master program Environmental Sciences you can attend the class as "free choice course".
  • In the master program Mass Media and Communication Science (2003 / 2017) the 10 ECTS will be recognized in “Free Electives” / “Individual Electives”.
  • In the master programs Molecular Biology (Molecular Biology; Genetics and Developmental Biology; Molecular Microbiology, Microbial Ecology and Immunobiology) the 10 ECTS credit points can be  completed in the Elective Module Additional Scientific Qualifications for Biologists (=WZB) without the need for further inquiry with the study program director. For recognitions beyond that, please get in contact with the study program director.
  • In the master program Nutritional Sciences the 10 ECTS credit points can be completed for Module 9 and 10 (Practical Skills I and II), for Internship and Guided Courses I and II, as well as Praxis I and II. For recognitions beyond that, please contact the study program director.
  • In the diploma study program Pharmacy you can complete the course for the module "Free Electives".
  • In the master program Physics the 10 ECTS can be completed in the "Wahlmodul Interessen".
  • In the master program in Political Science you can complete the course for "M12 Wahlbereich".
  • Information about the master program Social and Cultural Anthropology will be available soon.
  • In the master program Sociology you can complete the course for the modules: 'MA F - Forschungsspezialisierung: Wissenschaftsforschung', or 'MA F - Forschungsspezialisierung: Kultur und Gesellschaft'.

If you have further questions please contact the respective study program director.

How will the students be graded?

Preparation of the readings and active participation in class 20%assessed individually
Mapping and documentation of a debate along specific work assignments (in groups) 45%assessed as group work
Writing a contribution addessed to a broader public  20%assessed individually
Keeping a research diary 15%assessed individually

Attendance is compulsory, in all sessions of the seminar as well as in all compulsory tutorials. 
The grading of the course is based on the separate assessment of different tasks on a scale of 1-5. 

When and where will the course be held?


Seminar room and library of the Department of Science and Technology Studies
NIG, Universitätsstrasse 7, 1010 Wien
Staircase II, 6th floor, room C0602


Group 1:
Preparatory Meeting: 6.10.2017, 14.00 (seminar room)
Seminar: 13.10., 27.10., 10.11., 24.11., 15.12., 12.1., 19.1., 26.1. 14:00-18.00
Tutorial: 20.10. 14:00-15:30, 3.11. 14:00-16:00

Group 2:
Preparatory Meeting: 6.10.2017, 16.00 Uhr (seminar room)
Seminar: 13.10., 3.11., 17.11., 1.12., 15.12., 12.1., 19.1., 26.1. 14:00-18.00
Tutorial: 20.10. 16:00-17:30, 10.11. 14:00-16:00

How many students can participate and how can I apply?

The total number of participants will be limited to 15. There will be a waiting list.

Please send your application via Email to by 24 September 2017. Please include the following information:

  • Name
  • Student ID Number
  • Master program
  • Explain your interest in participating in the course in max. 250 words.
  • Indicate your language preference (German or English)
  • Indicate your group preference (Group 1 or Group 2)

The selection of participants will be done by the lecturers in cooperation with the study program directors. If the applications exceed the limit of 15 students, advanced master students will be privileged.

You will be informed by 2 October 2017 at the latest whether you have been accepted.