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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Postgrad (School of Social and Political Studies)

Postgraduate Course: Controversies in Science and Technology (PGSP11370)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThe increasing societal application of scientific and technological knowledge, rather than resolving decision-making in complex domains has often been associated with fierce public controversy. Competing claims by different specialist groups and diverging stakeholder perspectives seem to frustrate attempts to create consensus. How can we understand such controversies? How can society reach effective and democratic decisions in contested and uncertain domains? Focusing on controversies in science and technology particularly publicly visible controversies this course introduces theoretical approaches and concepts for conducting state-of-the-art research and critical thinking in this field.

The course consists of an introductory lecture, setting out the various analytical approaches, followed by a more detailed examination of frameworks for understanding disputes, each developed around a specific case study. The starting point for the course is the typology of disputes developed by Nelkin (fear of risks, infringement of values, different political priorities, threat to individual rights). In week two, risks in controversies is examined using the case study of nuclear power and in week three infringement of values is examined using the case study of human embryonic stem cells. Week four moves onto examining policy aspects, starting with examining the role of framing (Schön & Rein) taking food security as a case study where there are multiple competing framings of the problem. The role of scientists in policy controversies forms the basis of Pielke's approach and is best illustrated in climate change policy (week 5). Week 6 explores the contrast between government and governance taking the case of Vioxx to explore the roles of each. Week 7 covers policy ambivalence, when the policy process remains unresolved, taking aquaculture as a case study. Week 8 introduces public controversy taking the case of genetically modified crops and using Tait's values-interests model to explicate the controversy. This approach is not uncontroversial, and others, such as Wynne, take a different approach, emphasising public engagement. In week 9, the case of synthetic biology is taken as an example of a body of researchers trying to avoid controversy by engaging with the public at an early stage in research. Finally, week 10 looks even further into the future at the challenges of upstream engagement.
Course description This course introduces students to important social science perspectives for understanding publicly visible controversies in science, technology and the environment. Each week addresses different conceptual tools, alongside empirical examples, to enable students to study controversies. We review different types of controversies and ways to investigate them, introducing historical, sociological and political perspectives for analyzing the arguments and actors involved in controversies - both within and outside the scientific community. Further, we critically reflect on normative agendas within the social sciences for not only studying but also intervening in controversies.

Outline Content

Each week introduces a different set of tools for examining controversies, illustrated by empirical cases. Approaches for studying controversies include Actor Network Theory, historical sociology, feminist theories of science and technology and frame analysis. Case studies include the Human Genome Project, cloning, geoengineering, and environmental pollution.

The course is taught through a lecture-followed-by-seminar format. Students are required to complete 2-3 readings per week in advance of the lecture. Lectures provide students with a rich background to the readings (i.e. they do not duplicate the readings) and broaden students' repertoire of empirical cases. Discussion of the readings enables a deeper understanding of both the conceptual tools and empirical cases. Students are encouraged to engage in debate, including adopting competing perspectives in order to develop their critical skills and ability to convey complex ideas to an informed audience.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Demonstrate critical awareness of a range of theoretical approaches, conceptual tools and methodologies for studying controversies in science and technology.Demonstrate critical awareness of a range of theoretical approaches, conceptual tools and methodologies for studying controversies in science and technology.
  2. Demonstrate application of the knowledge, skills and understanding from these theoretical approaches, conceptual tools and methodologies to a variety of empirical cases
  3. Demonstrate ability to identify, conceptualise and offer new and creative insights into at least one controversy in science and technology.
  4. Demonstrate ability to communicate using appropriate style and language for policy and academic audiences.
  5. Take responsibility for their own work.
Reading List
Martin, B. and Richards, E. (1995) 'Scientific knowledge, controversy, and public decision-making' in Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Petersen, and Trevor Pinch (eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1995), pp. 506-526,

Nelkin, D. (1992) (ed) Controversy: Politics of Technical Decisions (3rd Edition), Sage publications: Newbury Parl, London, New Delhi. Introduction.

Pielke, R.A.Jr (2007) The Honest Broker. Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Chapter 1 'Four idealized roles of science in policy and politics' and Chapter 3 'Science and decision-making'.

Schön, D.A. & Rein, M. (1994) Frame Reflection. Towards the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. Basic Books, New York. Chapter 2 'Policy controversies as frame conflicts' and Chapter 3 'Rationality, Reframing and Frame Reflection'.

Castle, D. and Culver, K. (2013) Getting to 'No': The method of contested exchange. Science and Public Policy 40:34-42.

Corner, A., Venables, D., Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Demski, C. and Pidgeon, N. (2011) Nuclear power, climate change and energy security: exploring British public attitudes. Energy Policy 39:4823-4833.

Friends of the Earth, the International Center for Technology Assessment & ETC Group (2011) The Principles for the Oversight of Synthetic Biology (Washington, DC: Friends of the Earth). Online at:

Godfrey, HCJ, Beddington JR, Crute IR, Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, JF, Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, SM and Toulmin, C. (2010) Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science 327:812-818.

Irwin, A. (2006) 'The Politics of Talk: Coming to Terms with the ¿New¿ Scientific Governance', Social Studies of Science 36/2:299¿320.

Lyall, C. (2007), 'Governing Genomics: New Governance Tools for New Technologies?', Technology Analysis and Strategic Management, 19/3, 365-382.

Lang, T. and Barling, D. (2012) Food security and food sustainability: reformulating the debate. The Geography Journal 178(4): 313-326.

Lyall, C., Papaioannou, T. and Smith, J. (2009) 'The Challenge of Policy Making for the New Life Sciences' in The Limits to Governance (Eds. Lyall, C; Papaioannou, T. and Smith, J.) Aldershot, Ashgate pp.1-17.

Rip, A. (2009), 'Futures of ELSA', EMBO reports, 10/7:666-670.

Tait, J. (2001) More Faust than Frankenstein: the European debate about the precautionary principle and risk regulation for genetically modified crops. Journal of Risk Research 4(2): 175-189.

Torgersen T, Schmidt M (2013) 'Frames and comparators: How might a debate on synthetic biology evolve?' Futures online first:

Williams, R. (2006) Compressed foresight and narrative bias: pitfalls in assessing high technology futures. Science as Culture 15(4): 327-348.

Wynne, B. (2001) Creating public alienation: expert cultures of risk and ethics on GMOs. Science as Culture 10(4): 445-481.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
Additional Class Delivery Information The course will be delivered over 10 weeks using a lecture-plus-seminar-discussion format. Each two-hour session will typically consist of a 1 hour lecture intended to signpost major theories, concepts and literature in specific areas of the field; followed by a 1 hour seminar organised around classroom discussion and interactive work. The role of the seminars is (i) to ensure that students have a good working understanding of the concepts and perspectives developed in the lectures, and (ii) to give them an opportunity to explore how those concepts and perspectives may be used to analyse a range of empirical case studies regarding the role of science in society.
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Miguel Garcia Sancho Sanchez
Tel: (0131 6)50 6518
Course secretaryMr Dave Nicol
Tel: (0131 6)51 1485
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