Science and society
This interdisciplinary science module extends the scientific understanding and skills you developed at OU level 1. You will explore several contrasting contemporary issues: food security and safety; water; engineering the climate; energy; and personalised medicine. Each topic focuses on questions where an understanding of science is important in decisions which face us as individuals and society. The topics are analysed both scientifically and in terms of four social themes: communication; risk; ethical issues; and decision-making. This module is also a useful means of acquiring the key skills and understanding required for further study of a range of science subjects.
What you will study
How can science contribute towards a healthy, happy future for humanity? Can science alone provide the answers?
This on-screen module tackles some of the biggest questions facing humanity. You will study five key challenges to future global well-being: food, water, climate, energy and medicine. As you study these topics, you will also explore the themes of communication, risk, ethical issues and decision making that demonstrate the often impossible task of separating scientific and social issues.
You will develop skills in finding and evaluating information from a range of sources, in communicating scientific ideas and opinions, in collaborative online work, and in practical and analytical skills.
Topic 1: Food: security and safety
How do we feed our rapidly growing global population? How do we tackle the ill-health that results from too much of some types of food and not enough of others?
This topic explores global food security, and asks whether highly technological solutions like the genetic modification of crops are appropriate. You will examine the science behind genetic modification and hence draw your own conclusions about its effectiveness or otherwise.
You will also study the science that informs the dietary advice we receive in the developed world. You will learn how the risks associated with the various components of our diet are assessed, and look critically at how scientists and governments attempt to communicate those risks to us.
Topic 2: Water
How do we provide adequate supplies of water to a growing global population? How do we ensure that our water is safe to drink?
Our blue planet is 70% water, but millions face water crises. You will study the distribution of water in nature and how it is influenced by human activity. You will investigate why nations suffer from water scarcity and how scientific and technological advances can improve fair access to water. You will consider the social issues related to water distribution, testing and regulation through a number of global examples.
This topic also explores the risks associated with contaminated water supplies, discussing cases where arsenic has entered the water supply.
Topic 3: Engineering the climate
Should we deliberately manipulate earth’s climate to counteract human-caused climate change and avoid its worst effects?
Geoengineering is controversial. Why might we want to engineer the climate? How we might design the perfect climate? What are the risks and uncertainties involved, and how might we use scientific information to make informed decisions? You will explore the science and mathematics needed to tackle these issues and how planetary change is measured and modelled. Geoengineering techniques are explored alongside other factors that influence climate change.
The topic explores how climate scientists interact with society, how climate science is communicated and by whom, how people respond to these messages, including climate ‘scepticism’, and the benefits and tensions in using scientific evidence to make decisions about our future.
Topic 4: Energy
How do we meet the ever-increasing global and personal demands for energy?
In this topic you will explore two key scientific and social issues which arise as a result of our demand for energy. The first is the challenge of generating electricity sustainably, and potential risks and benefits of a greater reliance on nuclear power. The second is the challenge of developing sustainable alternatives to crude oil, examining the potential risks and benefits of biofuels, hydrogen as fuel, fuel cells and batteries.
You will also explore the science behind the energy technologies, and how environmental impact can be assessed. Ethical issues are addressed using the concept of energy justice: whether energy systems can be developed to give people access to energy without compromising the quality of life of current or future generations.
Topic 5: Personalised medicine
Modern medicine throws challenging questions for humanity. Recent scientific advances suggest that medical treatments will increasingly become tailored to meet the needs of individuals, a field known as “personalised medicine”. A range of advances in this area of medical science are discussed, including, gene therapy and genomic medicine, the use of stem cells and tissue regeneration.
The topic focuses in particular on how our increased knowledge of genetics and the human genome has impacted on medical treatments, and how this knowledge could be used in the future. You will engage with the ethical issues associated with the research and development of these new technologies, the difficulties in proceeding from initial laboratory research to therapeutic applications, and the evidence for the effectiveness of any clinical use so far.
You will undertake an online practical investigation to assess the effectiveness of a cancer treatment across a range of individuals.
In the final part of this module you will choose an aspect of one of the five topics to update. You will study appropriate scientific literature and write a short briefing note on the most recent developments in the field. This will form part of the final assessment for the module.
This module is delivered entirely online, with audio, video and interactive activities integrated throughout. There are no printed texts.
This is an OU level 2 module. You should have the study skills obtained through OU level 1 study with the OU, or through having done equivalent work at another university.
If you are new to study in higher education, we recommend that you study one or more of our key introductory Stage 1 modules before this OU level 2 module. These would include Questions in science (S111), Science and health: an evidence-based approach (SDK100) and Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116).
It is essential that you establish whether or not your background and experience give you a sound basis on which to tackle the module, since students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully and get the most enjoyment out of the module. The Science Faculty has prepared further guidance in Are You Ready For S201? to help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation.
If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.
The study materials, study guide, activities, assignments, forums, online tutorial rooms and other resources are all provided via a dedicated website. The written materials are also available in other formats including PDF, EPUB, interactive ebook (ePub3), Kindle ebook and Microsoft Word should you wish to study on mobile devices.
You will need
A digital camera is recommended to record images of your work.
You may find it useful to have a notebook and pen for note-taking and working out your answers to self-assessment questions and activities.
You may need to draw diagrams or graphs and then use either a scanner or a digital camera to produce files of these diagrams for inclusion in your assessments.
A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.
Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.
A desktop or laptop computer with either:
- Windows 7 or higher
- Mac OS X 10.7 or higher
The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.
To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).
Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.