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 Science and Communication  posted by  duggu   on 1/31/2008  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Price, James F., 12.757 Science and Communication, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 09 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Collecting marine samples as part of WHOI's Aging Lab Photo.

Collecting marine samples for a study on the biological effects of aging as part of WHOI's Aging Lab project. (Image courtesy of johncumbers, as posted on

Course Highlights

This course features an extensive reading list.

Course Description

This seminar is intended to help students in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program develop a broader perspective on their thesis research by considering some aspects of science in the large. The first part of the course challenges students to develop a thoughtful view towards major questions in science that can be incorporated in their own research process, and that will help them articulate research findings. The second part of the course emphasizes science as a social process and the important roles of written and oral communication.

This course is offered through The MIT/WHOI Joint Program. The MIT/WHOI Joint Program is one of the premier marine science graduate programs in the world. It draws on the complementary strengths and approaches of two great institutions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).



The Goal

This seminar is intended to help MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program students develop a broader perspective on their thesis research by considering some aspects of science in the large. Topics to include - What are the goals and what are the limits of natural science? Is there a method of scientific research? What constitutes an explanation? and, What ethics are scientists expected to follow in dealings with their colleagues and the public? These questions do not allow a single, concise answer, in part because there are many varieties of science. Our aim will be to develop a thoughtful view towards these questions that we can use as part of our research process, and that will help us articulate research findings. This overview of science and research will require a little more than the first half of the semester.

The second half of the semester will emphasize a theme - science as a social process - and the important roles of written and oral communication. Most good research reports are organized as stories in three parts: a beginning, which poses a problem and sets the context for its solution; a middle, which describes the methods used to arrive at the solution; and the end, where we learn what the author thinks the solution may mean for his or her field. By far the greatest fraction of our graduate education is directed at the middle part of this process, problem solving, the prerequisite for making a research report. To contribute to science, research results must be conveyed into the public record in an effective way, i.e., we aren't done until we teach our colleagues what we have learned. The specific goal of this seminar is to help participants learn to communicate more effectively by developing the beginning and the end of their research story.

To summarize, this seminar

  • is not likely to change the ways in which you carry out your thesis research,
  • may change how you think about the goals and the interpretation of your research,
  • should help you learn to communicate research results more effectively.


No formal grades are given in this course.


This seminar is open to all Joint Program students. It is desirable (not mandatory) that participants have defined a thesis problem that they can develop as a model of research and science. Class size will be limited to about ten, and preference will be given to post-generals students.

Preparation for Class Meetings

The first ten meetings will be conducted as discussions of the questions that are listed in the course calendar. The reading assignments provide one plausible view to consider, and are an essential common basis for this discussion. These discussions will be stimulating and valuable only to the extent that we all come to class prepared to offer a critique of the reading assignment, to offer our own views, and to ask new questions. The aim is not necessarily to come to a closed solution, but to develop a working understanding of the issues as they relate to our research.


Part 1: What Is Science, and How Does It Work?
1-3 The Goals and Institutions of Natural Science

The Goals and Institutions of Natural Science

  • How does natural science differ from fine arts, mathematics or engineering and technology?
  • Varieties of science.
  • What is the character of the science you are pursuing?

Scientific Knowledge

  • Discovery or justification?
  • Science as a social process.
  • What is the goal of your thesis research?

Scientific Progress and Change

  • Is the history of science a steady progression or an occasional revolution?
  • Is there a change taking place in your field/discipline today?
  • Can you characterize the paradigm of your field? Of your thesis research?
4-8 The Process of Scientific Research

Theory and Observation

  • What are the roles of theory and observation in science?
  • Are decisive experiments possible?
  • Can experiment proceed and succeed in the absence of a comprehensive theory?

Elements of Scientific Method

  • What are the limitations characteristic of inductive and deductive methods?
  • Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying that scientific thinking is no more than good common sense. Is that true of you and your thesis research, or is something more required?
  • What logical scheme characterizes your thesis research?

The Practice of Scientific Method

  • When is a falsification (or a confirmation) interesting/important?
  • Is there a scientific method or not? Which of the common NSF proposal errors are related to scientific method?

Explanation in the Physical Sciences

  • What constitutes a useful scientific explanation?
  • When does (or must) explanation stop? What would you mean if you were to say that you understood a phenomenon?

Explanation in the Life Sciences

  • Is biology an autonomous science?
  • Can a teleological explanation ever be valid?
  • Explanation of complex events, with no clear laws.
9-10 Ethics of Scientific Research

Free and Open Communication?

  • What are the obligations of a scientist? To whom or to what do you owe your highest loyalty?
  • What constitutes intellectual property? When is it appropriate to withhold data and other information?

The Reward System in Science

  • What are society's motives for sponsoring scientific research? Are these consistent with your personal motives for being a scientist? How do you expect to be rewarded for your efforts as a scientist?
  • On what basis do we choose or agree to become a coauthor?
  • Are science ethics undergoing a change?
Part 2: Communication
11 Scientific Publication

Scientific Publication

  • What is the role of written communication? What constitutes 'scientific publication'?
  • How much should we publish and when is a research project at the right stage for publication?
  • How is a paper judged by referees and editors? What constitutes a conflict of interest and what should you do if you have one?
  • What makes a good scientific paper? What are your favorite scientific papers, and most of all, why?
12 Oral Communication

Oral Communication

  • What is the role of seminars? In what ways might the content of a seminar be different from that of a scientific paper?
  • How do you plan and prepare for a seminar?
  • What qualities make for a good seminar?
13-16 The Practice of Scientific Communication

In the remainder of the semester the participants will have a chance to give a short oral report of their thesis research (or of a paper they find interesting) to a critical but sympathetic audience, their classmates. Each class member will give the presenter a written evaluation.

Our goal in these short seminars is to emphasize the beginning and the end parts of the research story, while largely omitting the technical details of the middle (which are, of course, crucially important but you deal with that at length elsewhere). This seminar will have been successful if the participants find that they are even slightly more comfortable writing and talking about the goals, the logical structure and the interpretation of their research. Are the goals, as you write them down now, any different than at the time of the first class, Question 1(a)?   Tell A Friend