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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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

The philosophy of Evidence Based Medicine

Lecturers: Dr Brendan Clarke

Outline of topic:Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is a method for making decisions about medical treatments. Briefly, EBM is the: "conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients" [Sackett 1996]

While it initially rose to prominence in clinical medicine during the 1990s, its subsequent influence has been extremely wide-spread. Many decisions in social policy, for example, are now made using methods that are closely based on EBM practices. This change in application raises questions regarding the implications of exporting this method into such a different context.

This session deals with the methodology and philosophy of evidence-based medicine (EBM) as found in medicine and elsewhere. To begin, we will investigate the manner in which EBM should work in medicine (Guyatt et al 1992). We'll then move on to discuss some potential difficulties of this account, as reviewed in Clarke et al 2013. We'll conclude the session (and the course) with a brief overview of some of the challenges faced by those using EBM-inspired methods in medicine, and elsewhere.

Required reading:
Clarke, B., Gillies, D., Illari, P., Russo, F. and Williamson, J. 2013. The evidence that evidence-based medicine omits. Preventive Medicine. 57(6): 745-7.
Guyatt, G. et al. 1992. Evidence-based medicine. a new approach to teaching the practice of medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association,268(17): 2420-5.
Sackett, D., Rosenberg, W., Gray, J., Haynes, R., and Richardson, W. 1996.Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn't. British Medical Journal,312(7023): 71-2.

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 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.

Scientific Classification and Scientific Realism

Lecturer: Dr Emma Tobin

Outline of topic: In this session we will take a look at an important and ongoing debate in contemporary philosophy of science: are we justified in accepting the most secure findings of scientists “at face value”? In other words, are scientific theories literally true and do scientific systems of classification carve nature at its joints? You will be invited to reflect on systems of classification in your own particular area of study, taken either from the history of science or from current scientific practice and to think about their implications for scientific realism and anti-realism.

Required reading:
The entry on ‘Scientific realism’, from the online Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy (link
The entry on ‘Natural Kinds’ from the the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (link)

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. URL tbc. 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.

Who is responsible if someone uses research to cause harm?

Lecturer: Dr Brian Balmer

Outline of Topic: In December 2011 the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity suggested that two papers describing how to make avian flu virus (H5N1) more transmissible should not be published in their entirety because the information in them posed a security threat. Although the papers were eventually published in full, this raises the complex question: what responsibility do scientists (and other researchers) have for the use made of their work? In particular, how do we address this question when an increasing amount of cutting-edge research in science has been termed “dual-use”, work done for benign purposes but capable of being used for malign purposes? This session will focus on the governance of dual-use science and technology in the life sciences, although it is open to anyone interested in their own social responsibility as a researcher.

The workshop will begin with a background lecture and then we will be using a role play exercise “The Life Science, Biosecurity and Dual Use Research” designed as part of a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Note: This session depends on a minimum number of people attending. If you register for this course and cannot attend please notify me at b.balmer@ucl.ac.uk

Required reading:
Royal Society and Wellcome Trust (2004), Do no harm: reducing the potential for the misuse of life science research (London: Royal Society), (available online)

Additional reading:
Steven Shapin, “Don’t Let That Crybaby in Here Again,” London Review of Books (September, 2000), (available online)
McLeish, C and Nightingale, P (2007), ‘Biosecurity, Bioterrorism and the Increasing Convergence of Science and Security Policy’, Research Policy Vol.36 No.10 pp.1635-1654


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)


Registration information will be available in due course.

Page last updated: 23rd April 2015