Science in Society Laboratories

Seminar (10 ECTS, 3 SWS)

Ulrike Felt
Maximilian Fochler

Susanne Öchsner

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.).

Herbicide glyphosate - Roundup

Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides, which is deployed against weeds in agriculture. Outside of the European Union glyphosate is used with genetically modified glyphosate-resistant plants to kill “competing” weeds. The health-related and ecological effects of the substance are controversially discussed.

Mobile phone radiation

Mobile phones, mobile phone masts but also Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) create new kinds of human exposure to high-frequency radiation. The effects on human health and their implications for the use of mobile phones and mobile communication in general are controversially discussed.


Credit: Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation

Plastic is a widely used material in our society. Microscopically small plastic particles, either manufactured on purpose or decay products of larger plastic pieces, end up in water and in the air in uncertain amounts. Their effects on human health and the environment are in the focus of current debates.

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 the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), the health effects of mobile phone radiation and the consequences of microplastics 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

Who is this course aimed at?

The course is particularly aimed at master students in the following study programs:

  • Chemistry
  • Nutritional Science
  • Molecular Biology; Genetics and Developmental Biology; Molecular Microbiology, Microbial Ecology and Immunobiology
  • Physics
  • Social Sciences: all master students at the Faculty of Social Sciences with the exception of the master program Science-Technology-Society

For which study programs can I complete the course?

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

  • 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 master program Physics the 10 ECTS can be completed in the "Wahlmodul Interessen".
  • 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 Mass Media and Communication Science (2003) the 10 ECTS will be recognized in “Free Electives”. In the master program Mass Media and Communication Science (2017) the 10 ECTS will be recognized in “Individual Electives”.
  • Information about the master programs Sociology, Political Science, and Social and Cultural Anthropology will be available soon.

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.