I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’d been asked to put together a very schematic course proposal, for a potential undergraduate elective in Science and Public Policy. The pro forma for the course proposal, which I’ve attached below the fold, didn’t allow for much detail – it basically just provides a brief description of the overarching course concept, and a bit of scaffolding on the structure of the course and assessment activities. I’ve just been told that the course concept has been accepted, and that a detailed course guide will need to be developed by 30 June. This requires much more work – and carries the additional wrinkle that I’m not sure whether I will be the one who actually delivers this course, so I need to design the course so that it doesn’t rely on my idiosyncratic disciplinary background…
So, with this in mind, I need to develop the detailed week-by-week course guide, complete with readings and activities, around the scaffolding provided by the pro forma. This process may require reworking or casting out some of the concepts from the course proposal. I’m personally not all that committed to the specific themes I used for the course proposal, and I’m more actively worried about the assessment tasks – whether there are too many of them, whether they assess the right skills, etc. So there is still a lot of conceptual work to be done, in addition to identifying readings and choosing activities.
As before, all suggestions are very, very welcome (and special thanks to Russ for his suggestions from the last round of discussion, some of which have already been expressed in the proposal pro forma, and still others of which will likely make their way into the more fleshed-out course guide).
Pro Forma: Science and Public Policy
Scientific research and discoveries are central to some of the most contentious policy debates of our time. Policy makers are often called on to assess the validity and the applicability of scientific data, while members of the voting public are confronted with often conflicting claims about the implications of scientific research. The ability to interpret scientific claims, as well as the ability to analyse claims about science, has therefore become a vital skill for engaged public participation.
In this course, we will explore ten case studies where either the outcomes, or the very existence, of scientific research have posed problems for policy makers. We will organise our cases into the following themes:
- The â€œScience Warsâ€: an introduction to contemporary debates over science and public policy;
- Nature-Nurture: debates over what defines us as human beings;
- â€œWicked Problemsâ€: debates involving heavily contested scientific research;
- Limits to Science: debates over whether science can, or ought to, explore specific issues.
Each theme will introduce key scientific concepts, as well as the presentation of those concepts in policy and media documents. Class activities and assessment tasks for each theme will provide opportunities for students to assess scientific claims â€“ as well as claims about science â€“ critically, tracking back to the original sources and making independent judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying scientific data. At the same time, students will explore some of the philosophical and ethical debates over the role of scientific research, and learn to distinguish these philosophical debates from debates over the accuracy or applicability of scientific data to public policy.
By the end of this course, you should achieve:
- A better understanding of the methodologies, theories and current research priorities of several major scientific disciplines;
- An introductory knowledge of research methodology, statistics and other concepts required to assess the strengths and weaknesses of specific scientific studies;
- An ability to read policy and media discussions of science critically, and to track back to the actual scientific studies being cited to assess the accuracy of the popular discussion;
- Practice presenting scientific concepts to a â€œlayâ€ audience, verbally and in writing;
- An introductory knowledge of the history of science and changing ideals of scientific research and the role of science in society;
- An understanding of key ethical debates relating to contemporary scientific research; and
- An introduction to recent academic debates over the relationship between the sciences and the social sciences and humanities.
Overview of Learning Activities
This course will be organised around case studies of recent and historical controversies over the implications of scientific research and discovery. You will explore these case studies through:
- panel discussions with visiting scholars;
- field trips;
- course readings;
- self-directed research and writing;
- group activities; and
- in-class discussion and debate.
Overview of Learning Resources
Core readings will be provided in a Reading Pack, which will be available on electronic and 2-hour reserve from the ________ library, or for purchase from __________.
You are also expected to access additional print, electronic and other resources related to specific assignments. Some of these additional materials will be identified in the weekly Research Guides; others you must identify independently, as part of your research for this course.
Overview of Assessment
You will be assessed on the following tasks:
(a) Written Tasks: 60% of final mark
You must submit three written pieces, one in each of the following topic areas:
- 10%: a brief (@800 word) â€œjournalisticâ€ article or audio-visual presentation explaining a scientific concept or debate to a â€œlayâ€ audience;
- 20%: a brief (@1200 word) academic essay analysing the accuracy of the scientific claims presented in a written or audio-visual intervention into a policy debate;
- 30%: a (@2000 word) research essay on either the policy implications of a recent scientific controversy, or the scientific implications of a recent policy proposal.
(b) Verbal Tasks: 24% of final mark
You must organise and participate in one or more debates on specific scientific controversies. Where possible, visiting scholars or others with relevant expertise in the topic will be invited to observe the debate and provide feedback.
(c) Class Activities: 16% of final mark
Classes and tutorial sessions are designed to be interactive, and you will be assessed on your participation in these interactive activities.