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.