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Social and cultural dimensions of engineering and science get short shrift.

Since the 1980s, there have been major efforts throughout the world to stimulate closer ties between universities and private companies. While the subsequent commercialization of science and engineering has led to many new products, it has also brought with it a number of unintended and undesirable consequences. In particular, the broader social, environmental, and ethical implications of science and engineering have tended to be bracketed out of the educational process.

As debates over genetic engineering, stem cells, global warming, and evolutionary theory have demonstrated, it is crucially important that the relations among science, technology, and society be given proper attention in the education of scientists and engineers. But to the extent that students are encouraged to reach beyond their particular scientific and technological disciplines, they are not exploring the social and cultural implications of their chosen fields. Instead, most students tend to receive guidance in marketing and entrepreneurship, as if social concern can be met by salesmanship and public relations.

At Aalborg University, the authors sought to incorporate issues of social responsibility and what we call “scientific citizenship” in the new educational program in nanotechnology. The university already had a tradition of problem- and project-based learning and of providing contextual knowledge to its science and engineering students, both in course work and projects. Mostly, however, the context took the form of market analyses or of studies of philosophy relevant to science and technology. Our course adopted a socio-cultural approach. In our lectures, we introduced students to the cultural history of science and technology, and, in their project work, we advised students as to how they might address and assess the cultural and/or ethical implications of the emerging nanotechnology field. In this way, we hoped to foster a “hybrid imagination.”

The projects that several groups undertook in the academic year 2006-2007 combined an impressive understanding of the relevant scientific theories and experimental practice with insights derived from the social and human sciences. One group made solar cells that used nano-engineered raspberry and spinach molecules to improve electrical efficiency. They combined this ambitious technical research activity with an exploration of the climate change debate and an assessment of the role their solar cells could play in dealing with climate change. The project is a prime example of the hybrid imagination in action. The students gained experience working with scientific laboratory equipment, as well as in analyzing policy documents.

An attempt in Denmark to foster "scientific citizenship" is scaled back.

Two other groups also investigated public concerns about nanotechnology in their projects. Normally, survey-based research on the public understanding of science and technologies is performed by social scientists, who are only sometimes well-informed about the scientific activities in question and who are not themselves knowledge producers within the field. By contrast, the nanotechnology students’ surveys represented a direct link between producers and potential users of nano-knowledge. In addition, the learning process inspired in these students a strong commitment to engage lay citizens in discussing the issues. By fostering their hybrid imagination, the students developed a sense of scientific citizenship, which embraces both scientific competence and social responsibility.

These examples show that it is possible to combine contextual and scientific/technical knowledge in a meaningful and integrated fashion. Unfortunately, the science and engineering teachers in the nanotechnology program were not impressed and, in the 2007-8 year, succeeded in removing contextual knowledge advising from second-semester project work. Whether it remains possible to foster the hybrid imagination among science and engineering students at Aalborg University is an open question.

Andrew Jamison is professor of technology, environment, and society at the Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University. Niels Mejlgaard is senior researcher at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, University of Aarhus. Both schools are in Denmark.




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