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Science in context

This module covers a range of interesting, contemporary issues with a scientific dimension: BSE/vCJD; near-Earth objects; water and wellbeing; climate change; genetic manipulation and nanotechnology. It deals with the underlying science and its ‘real world’ relevance. The topics are analysed in terms of four themes: communication; risk; ethical issues; and decision-making. The module will equip you to examine critically similar issues that might arise in future. You are assumed to have studied a range of scientific disciplines at OU level 1 and to have an interest in science in its broad social context.

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OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate-level module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code
Study level
2 8 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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What you will study

Six interesting, contemporary scientific topics provide the foundations for this module. In addition, four important themes – science communication, risk, ethical issues and decision making – set the topics in a broader societal context. Overall, science content takes up 75-80%, and the themes 20-25%, of study time.

BSE/vCJD (three weeks). BSE was not only an economic and social tragedy in its own right; it also gave rise to vCJD, an invariably fatal new disease that (so far) has affected mainly young people. Our quest to understand these and other encephalopathy diseases is giving rise to a new branch of biology that deals with shape-changing protein molecules such as prions. At least in the UK and much of Europe, the BSE/vCJD episode seems to have contributed to the public’s apparent mistrust of many new scientific developments, and scepticism about reassurances that these are both beneficial and safe.

Near-Earth Objects and the impact hazard (three weeks). This topic deals with the collision of asteroids and comets with the Earth. In the past, such collisions are known to have had major effects on the development of life on Earth. This topic explores the nature of the hazard and how it is quantified. The high probability that, sooner or later, more collisions will happen in future raises all sorts of difficult issues. Should we attempt to prevent such an impact? Or at least mitigate its effects? If so, how? How much resource ought to be devoted to such an enterprise (resource that could be spent on controlling diseases or ending world hunger)? If a major impact were to be predicted with a high level of probability, should the public be informed? What would be the likely effects of such knowledge?

Water & Well-being: arsenic in Bangladesh (three weeks). The belated realisation that water made available to villages in rural Bangladesh and India was naturally contaminated with dangerous levels of arsenic raises difficult questions about the responsibilities of science and scientists. What can and should be done once such a problem has been recognised?

Climate Change (seven weeks). Many people are convinced that human-induced climate change is the single greatest threat to human society at the present time. Predicted effects include increased sea level, more extreme-weather events, alterations to the distribution of natural biota – including disease-causing organisms – and changes in agricultural productivity. Although there can be little doubt that the climate is changing at the present time, the problem is that climate is an intrinsically variable phenomenon. There are therefore those who do not accept that we are witnessing anything other than natural oscillations caused by (for instance) variation in the Sun’s energy output, and so resist the profound changes to our way of life that would be needed to stop human-induced climate change. In addition to covering the science that underpins climate and its variation, this topic addresses some of the issues that arise when science impinges on the ‘real’ world of politics and economics.

Genetic Manipulation (seven weeks). After millennia of intentionally and accidentally altering the genetic composition of animals and plants by selective breeding, we stand on the brink of being able to introduce any gene from any organism into any other organism – including ourselves. Advocates point to the tremendous potential that such genetic manipulation has for improving agricultural crops and animals, and for curing human diseases. Others question the safety of genetically modified food, the possible ecological consequences of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, and the ethics of tampering with the human genome. As well as the science behind such examples of genetic manipulation, this topic also examines recent attempts at public consultation.

Nanotechnology (five weeks). The extremely diverse and rapidly developing field of nanotechnology is emerging as a ‘battlefield’. Lines are drawn between those keen to harness the potential of new materials and techniques, and those concerned about the possible dangers of introducing new science-based technologies on a very wide scale over a comparatively short period of time. This topic covers the underlying science of some aspects of nanotechnology, introduces some likely applications, including those categorised as bio-nanotechnology, and critically discusses these developments in terms of the four module themes.

While each of these scientific topics is interesting and important in its own right, they have also been selected for the light they throw on the four module themes. The module themes are:

  • science communication
  • risk
  • ethical issues
  • decision making.

These themes are introduced in the Introduction to the course (which precedes the first topic, BSE/vCJD), developed through the succeeding topics and assessed in the three tutor-marked assignments and the end-of-module assessment alongside the module's science content. Effective two-way communication about science and science-related issues between scientists, decision-makers and the public is crucial if society is not only to reap the benefits of science, but also to minimise the chance of repeating some of the mistakes of the past. Since all change entails a degree of risk, it is essential to assess the risks – as well as potential benefits – of proposed scientific developments. Given the pace and likely impact on society of many such developments, we must also think clearly about the ethical dimension of these developments. Finally, scientific developments do not occur without decision making occurring at various levels. While not a module in social science, this module examines critically the mutual interaction between ‘pure’ science and its broader social context.

Since the module deals with issues that do not have clear-cut ‘black-and-white’ answers, it is very important that students engage in debate with other students (and their tutor). While such discussions will naturally occur in face-to-face tutorials, you are expected to participate in one or more computer conferences – putting forward and defending your own views on an issue and giving serious consideration to the views put forward by others.

You will learn

Not only some interesting science and its relevance in modern society, but also how to critically analyse contemporary scientific issues in terms of the module themes of communication, risk, ethical issues and decision making.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be assigned to a tutor who will hold online tutorials, facilitate one or more online forums, mark your tutor-marked assignments and generally help you achieve the module’s learning outcomes.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

You must submit your end-of-module assessment (EMA) via the eTMA system.

The TMAs are delivered via the module website and each TMA will be published around the time that you are studying the topic being assessed, i.e. the TMAs will not be available at the start of the module.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015 when it will be available for the final time.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This module is for you if you have already studied a fairly broad range of science disciplines (that is, not only biology or the physical sciences) at OU level 1 – either with Exploring science (S104) or at another university – and have an interest in the impact of science in a wider societal context. If you have not studied science at this level or have studied only (say) biology or physics, you may need to read outside the module in order to understand the underlying science adequately. Are you ready for S250? provides more detailed guidance. This can be viewed as an interactive program for PC or printed as a PDF. 

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £1350.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

October 2015 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 31/07/2015.

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, a DVD-ROM that includes video material and computer software, a website, online forums.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available. For this module you will also need to install software provided by the OU on a disk or USB stick.

A Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system is suitable for this module. You will be required to install Microsoft Windows specific software.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

The study materials are available on audio in DAISY Digital Talking Book format. The books are available in a comb-bound format. The study materials are available in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The module contains complex figures and assessment is sometimes based on these. Figure descriptions are provided wherever possible.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.