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Key Concepts in Science and Technology Studies

Course Description

Do you ever feel that your research (either in the sciences or in the humanities) is too narrowly focused and that you may be missing the bigger picture? This course, run by specialists in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, is designed to help.

Using their wide-ranging interdisciplinary expertise, this course sets out to explore the links between the sciences (broadly construed) and the historical, philosophical, and sociological context and issues surrounding them. We envisage the course to be particularly suitable for graduates in both sciences and humanities keen to familiarise themselves with the broader context and questions underlying their research areas. You will be guided towards relevant themes and perspectives through a series of sessions run by each member of the STS Dept. in turn (each focusing on a particular aspect of the science and technology studies, and broadly falling into the five categories of history of science, philosophy of science, sociology of science, science communication and science policy).

The aims of this training course are:

  • to expand and broaden students’ knowledge in a variety of interdisciplinary aspects related to science and technology, as those aspects may be relevant to their PhD research area.
  • to increase students’ awareness of a variety of methodological approaches within the sciences (e.g. intellectual history vs. cultural history).
  • to create a platform for interdisciplinary discussions on a given topic.

By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • identify central themes and key concepts in science and technology studies and relate them to their own research areas
  • enhance their critical skills via interdisciplinary discussions in class on an assigned topic
Programme Outline:

What Does Art have to do With Science?

Lecturer: Dr Chiara Ambrosio

Outline of topic: In an age of interdisciplinary collaborations, the idea that art and science should be working side by side is often pitched as the ultimate form of ‘cutting edge’ research. But what does really art have to do with science? What makes these interdisciplinary interactions successful, and what criteria should we use to judge their success? In this session we explore the long history of the collaborations between artists and scientists, and evaluate some of the different and often conflictual forms these collaborations take. We try to use that history as a critical framework to think about the value we currently attribute to projects that cut across art and science, and reflect on the implications of the widespread assumption that any collaboration between art and science will inevitably lead to interdisciplinary (and inherently desirable) results.

This session will run in the UCL Art Museum.

Note: if you are involved in an interdisciplinary project involving a collaboration between artists and scientists you are very welcome to share any material you think may be appropriate from your own research with the rest of the group.

Required Reading:
If you are interested in a historical overview, read Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (1992), “The Image of Objectivity”, Representations, vol. 40, pp. 81-128.
If you are interested in more contemporary issues, read Born, G. and Barry, A. (2010) ‘Art-Science: from public understanding to public experiment’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 3, 1, 103-119.

Both articles are accessible via the UCL e-journals system.

Islamic contributions to science

Lecturer: Dr William Maclehose

Outline of topic: How much has classical Arabic science influenced the Western scientific world? Why has the impact of Islamic science been downplayed, overstressed or even ignored? This seminar discusses how Arabic scholars a thousand years ago revived the scientific traditions of the ancient world and, in the process, created new disciplines and new directions for inquiry into the natural world. We look at the important changes in medicine, astronomy, optics and other sciences that appeared in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Toledo. We will also consider why certain parts of this tradition receive praise while others—for example, alchemy or later Islamic contributions to science—are overlooked.

Required reading:
David C. Lindberg, ‘Islamic Science,’ in The Beginnings of Western Science, University of Chicago Press, 2007 (2nd edition), pp. 163-192. For a pdf email w.maclehose@ucl.ac.uk

Saliba, George, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, MIT Press, 2007.
Rashed, Roshdi, Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, 3 vols, Routledge Press, 1996.
Pormann, Peter and Emilie Savage Smith, Medieval Islamic Medicine, Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Turner, Howard R., Science in Medieval Islam, University of Texas Press, 1995.

Science and the Cold War

Lecturer: Prof Jon Agar

Outline of topic: How did the Cold War shape science, and vice versa? This session looks at examples drawn from a number of disciplines (astronomy, computing, biology, physics) to find out how and why the Cold War provided a distinctive and important context for the development of recent science. We will also look at the changing historiography (how history has been written) of Cold War science, and ask broader questions about the roles and responsibilities of science in warfare.

Required reading:
David K. van Keuren, 'Cold War Science in Black and White: US Intelligence Gathering and Its Scientific Cover at the Naval Research Laboratory, 1948-62', Social Studies of Science Vol. 31, No. 2, Science in the Cold War (Apr., 2001), pp. 207-229

Science and Religion

Lecturer: Prof Andrew Gregory

Outline of topic: Science and religion are commonly seen as antithetical, both in the modern world and throughout their history. Is this view correct for the modern world? Is it correct for all of history as well? How did this view come about? What are the recent developments in how we see the relation of science and religion? What of religions other than Christianity? What of different denominations within Christianity? We will look at various examples from current debates, from different historical periods and different religions. Learning outcomes: Awareness of alternative perspectives to the ‘conflict’ theory of science and religion – awareness of the origins of ‘conflict’ theory – awareness of how science and religion have interacted in different historical and religious contexts.

Required Reading:
T. Dixon, Introduction, Science and Religion: A very Short Introduction. Download online here

Advanced Reading:
 J.H. Brooke, Science and Religion, Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. Olby et al. Download online here

Two Cultures

Lecturer: Professor Steve Miller

Outline of topic: It is now over 50 years since C.P. Snow first advanced the idea that the intellectual life of the Western World was split between an old and reactionary arts/humanities culture and a scientific one that "held the future in its bones". Over- simplistic, inappropriate, ignorant - these were just some of the epithets that flew in Snow's direction.

And yet the "Two Cultures" concept still makes its way into (semi-)official documents concerning relations between science and society and discussions about the way the non-science media cover research discoveries and their implications. It remains a powerful rhetorical image for those who advocate a better deal for science and a harder time for those who are ignorant of it.

So maybe Snow got something right, or at least nearly right.

This workshop will re-examine Snow's original idea and look at its modern advocates with a view to understanding where science does or does not stand with respect to the rest of our culture.

Required reading: "The Two Cultures" by C.P. Snow. I suggest the Canto (1993) edition with a great if now dated discussion by Stefan Collini.

Anyone who has read "The Geek Manifesto: why science matters" by Mark Henderson (Bantam Press, 2012) might also enjoy this workshop.

Science in Public

Lecturer: Dr Carole Reeves

Outline of topic: This workshop will explore the concept of ‘Science in Public’ as it has evolved over the past half century, a period that has seen the greatest development of global communication in history and a volume of information, particularly with respect to science, that can never be assimilated in one lifetime. However, whilst many public images of, and attitudes towards, science are very positive, an increasing number are negative, and it takes only a few high profile controversies (think ‘fracking’, cloning, GM, BSE, MMR, WMD) to generate the ‘wrecker ball’ effect. The results of scientific endeavour will inevitably be played out in society and this places responsibilities on scientists – to explain, question and defend their work – and on the public – to negotiate the most appropriate information in order to participate in the social processes of scientific debate, and in some cases, decision making.

Required Reading:
Jane Gregory and Steve Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility (Basic Books 1998)
Mark Erickson, Science, Culture and Society: Understanding Science in the 21st Century (Polity Press 2005)

Making Science Public, University of Nottingham blog: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science (Harper Perennial 2009). Also look at Bad Pharma (Fourth Estate 2012) by the same author if you are interested in the pharmaceutical industry.

Science and Entertainment Media

Lecturers: Jean-Baptiste Gouyon

Outline of topic:What has science to do with entertainment? It has long been thought that science and entertainment where diametrically opposed. However, in the last decade or so, scholars adopting an interdisciplinary approach to entertainment media, blending insights from science studies with media studies, have started uncovering links between science and entertainment that were previously overlooked.

This session is complementary with Carole Reeve’s session on science in public. Here we will discuss a set of conceptual and methodological tools to investigate science in entertainment media.

Required reading:
David Kirby, 2011, Lab coats in Hollywood, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Suggested reading: Oliver Gaycken, 2015, Devices of Curiosity, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Global Governance of Science

Lecturer: Dr Jack Stilgoe

Outline of topic: Science is instinctively and increasingly global. It deals in supposedly universal knowledge. Scientists have historically travelled and collaborated across the world in search of the best ideas, the best equipment and the most interesting projects. Scientists are interested in global problems, and may be involved in international governance mechanisms such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But for all the talk of universalism and a ‘Flat World’, what is the reality of global science and global governance? Politics, governance and ethics across the world are farfrom flat. They look very spikey indeed. In this session, we will explore the implications of globalisation for scientists and other individuals, especially those at ‘London’s global university’.

Required reading:
Caroline Wagner's The New Invisible College: Science for Development (Brookings Institution Press), free chapter available online

The global governance of science, Report of the Expert Group on Global Governance of Science to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research, European Commission (available online)
J Wilsdon and C Leadbeater, The Atlas of Ideas, How Asian innovation can benefit us all Demos, 2007 (available online)
Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Science and Experience

Lecturer: Martin Savransky

Outline of topic: Are poets wrong to praise nature for its aesthetic and emotive features? On the one hand, we do this on a daily basis when we ascribe, for instance, ’sadness’ to a book or ‘happiness’ to an ending. On the other, much of our modern scientific and humanistic accounts of experience would indeed have to reply that our experience of the world does not necessarily match how the world is, and that they remain ’subjective’ reconstructions of an otherwise objective world. On the subjective side there are values, emotions, aesthetic judgments, ethical and political concerns. On the objective side, however, there is nothing other than cold, bare facts– only science has access to it. The poet, a neuroscientist might object, forgets that the so-called colour of the sunset is in fact in his own head. This distinction between science and experience is integral not just to much of modern science but indeed to the entire humanities and social sciences, who would often define their own specialisms as dealing precisely with the subjective, value-laden, side of experience. But what if poets are right? What if we could think without such distinctions? What would the world look like were it not bifurcated into the objective and the subjective, nature and culture, reality and experience?

In this session we will discuss these and related questions by engaging with the work of some early twentieth century thinkers, including John Dewey and A.N. Whitehead, who elaborated greatly on this possibility, and we will explore its consequences for our intellectual, ethical and political engagement with both scientific and humanistic knowledges. In the spirit of the poets’ proposal, we will engage in discussion by reading both a bit of philosophy and some poetry

Required reading:
Essential: Dewey, J. (1958), Experience and Nature (Chapter 1). Mineola: Dover Publications, available online here 
Recommended: A.N. Whitehead (1967), Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press.

Information ethics

Lecturer: Dr Phyllis Illari

Outline of Topic: Humanity is currently engaged in a process of thoroughly altering its environment, through the development of science and the many technologies science generates, particularly information and communication technologies. Such rapid change often requires us to re-think existing conceptual schemes for the new environment. For example, what is theft, in a digital age?

Information ethics re-examines traditional ethics from the point of view of the philosophies of science and of technology. It offers a proactive approach, an ethics that goes beyond the reaction of an agent to a situation, to the collective actions of agents in creating ethical situations in the first place.

We will apply information ethics to issues of current concern, such as information warfare, and privacy and digital archives.

Required reading:
Chapter 4, ‘Ethics’, in Philosophy of information: An introduction. available here Contact phyllis.illari@ucl.ac.uk

Chapter 5, ‘Society’, in Philosophy of information: An introduction;
Floridi, L. (2010a). Information ethics. In L. Floridi (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of information and computer ethics: Cambridge University Press.

Sessions will have the following format:
- part 1: introduction to the topic by a member of the STS Dept.
- part 2: group discussion both on the specific subject matter and on its relevance to related interdisciplinary fields.

It is strongly recommended that students come to the class having done the readings so as to have a more informed group discussion.

Students are recommended to attend all sessions of this course.

"This really helped me to crystallize many disparate thoughts which I already had about scientific practice and raised new questions. I have found myself thinking about the content of the lecture all day yesterday and today."

"Great in-depth mastery of subject material."

"Reading Plato's Meno for the first time was very stimulating. I felt my mind expanded by a flood of new ideas."

"The course has helped me to think about my research differently and put it in a wider perspective. It was also very insightful to hear about other people's research areas and how they tackle the same kind of problems in their particular field."

"really informative, ideal for both those who are new to the field or are more familiar."

Researcher Development Framework Categories

A3) Creativity

Course Recommended for

This course is particularly relevant to the following groups:

  • 1st Year Research Students
  • 2nd Year Research Students
  • 3rd Year Research Students
  • 4th Year Research Students
  • International Students
  • Students in Social & Historical Sciences
  • Students in Mathematical & Physical Sciences
  • Students in Engineering Sciences
  • Students in Medical Sciences

Course Organisers

  • Organiser - Dr Chiara Ambrosio - (Science & Technology Studies)
  • Administrator - Mr Alasdair Tatam - (Science & Technology Studies)
  • Administrator - Ms Kasia Bronk - (Organisational Development)


26 Oct 2015: What Does Art have to do With Science? expand

16 Nov 2015: Islamic Contributions to Science expand

30 Nov 2015: Science and the Cold War expand

18 Jan 2016: Science and Religion expand

1 Feb 2016: Two Cultures expand

7 Mar 2016: Science in Public expand

21 Mar 2016: Science and Entertainment Media expand

25 Apr 2016: The Global Governance of Science expand


6 Jun 2016: Information Ethics

Description:Please see workshop description above. Students are recommended to attend all sessions of this course. 
Places Available:7
Sessions:2:00pm - 5:00pm on Mon 6 Jun 2016
Room G40, UCL Medical Sciences Building, Malet Place WC1E 6BT (Map)
Preparatory Work:Please see the required reading in the session description above.

Page last updated: 23rd April 2015