Science in Society Laboratories

Seminar (10 ECTS, 3 SWS)

Sarah Davies


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.).

The Flint Water Crisis

A change of water supply in Flint, Michigan, led to tainted water for the city’s residents and a controversy involving activists, citizen scientists, professional scientists, local and regional government, and affected citizens. This case opens up questions such as: whose knowledge counts? How should politicians use science? And: should scientists act as activists?

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Radioactive nuclear waste from power plants but also from research and medicine is currently stored in interim facilities. For finding and establishing permanent disposal sites, various technical, geological, social and political factors need to be taken into account. Adequacy and risks of different kinds of storage and sites are controversially discussed. 

Public health impacts of face masks

The use of face masks has been a central but contested theme within efforts to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, with different countries taking different approaches to recommending or enforcing their use, and advice from the WHO changing from month to month. Face masks sit at the centre of a web of intersecting factors, from scientific knowledge that is 'in the making' to cultural norms around showing or revealing one’s face.

(How) do we want to live on Mars?

The idea of living on Mars fascinates many people and inspires research and innovation in many fields, such as the design of Mars habitats, the question how to grow food on Mars and if there should be a right to oxygen? At the same time, critical voices call for politics and science alike tackle the problems on Earth first, including climates change, before even thinking about colonizing other planets.

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 around self-driving cars, cell phone radiation, and the use of CRISPR gene editing technology in agriculture. We consider these debates as our “laboratory” in which the students investigate the interplay of science, technology and society. As a practical demonstration of how to map a specific problem, the Mass Bee Death of honeybees will be used by the lecturers as a guiding example. The case groups will be assigned in order to make the most of the heterogeneous backgrounds of the students.

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

This semester the course will be held in German and 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 Development Studies the 10 ETCS can be completed in the "Vertiefungsmodul 9 (VM9)". 
  • 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".
  • In the master program Social and Cultural Anthropology you can complete the course for the module "Interessensmodul".
  • 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 lab book 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?


Preparatory Meeting: 05.10., 09:00-11:00

Seminar: 12.10., 19.10., 09.11., 16.11., 30.11., 14.12., 11.01., 25.01., always 09:00-12:30

Tutorial: tbd (1h per group - concrete scheduling for the tutorial will be discussed in the first unit)



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

How many students can participate and how can I apply?

The course is open for 15 students. The registration period for the winter term 2020 is 03-23 September 2020. 
Registration via u:space.