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12.103 Strange Bedfellows: Science and Environmental Policy

Fall 2005

Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal facility.
A diagram outlining the proposal for storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

Course Highlights

This course features student work in the assignments section and a complete reading list.

Course Description

12.103 explores the role of scientific knowledge, discovery, method, and argument in environmental policymaking from both idealistic and realistic perspectives. The course will use case studies of science-intensive environmental controversies to study how science was used and abused in the policymaking process. Case studies include: global warming, biodiversity loss, and nuclear waste disposal siting. Subject includes intensive practice in the writing and presentation of "position statements" on environmental science issues.




Our goal is to provide you with a sense of how science is - and sometimes is not - used to guide environmental policymaking. We will explore the contrasting languages and goals of science and civics in the context of case studies. These will be drawn from four options at the discretion of the class participants: Global Warming, Bioreserves (with a focus on fisheries), DDT/Malaria, and Nuclear Waste Disposal.

Students will divide into teams to explore how science was used or misused in the development of policy in these specific cases. Ultimately, we hope to brainstorm about better ways to inform policy through solid science.

Subject Structure

Meetings will include lectures, class discussions, tutorials, and team meetings.


For lectures and group discussions, we have assigned specific readings that are available in the readings section. In addition, there are three writing assignments and each paper must be revised and resubmitted by each student independently. Obviously, outside sources must be referenced appropriately, and each student must do his or her own work on the writing assignments. Each team will also be responsible for a final report on the case study assigned to them. This will be an oral report during one of the last sessions of the term.




activities percentages
Class Attendance and Participation 30%
Written Assignments 40%
Team Presentation 30%


1 Introduction  
2 Science, Policy, and the Environment  
3 Overview of Case Studies I and II: Biopreserves and Nuclear Waste Disposal  
4 Overview of Case Studies III and IV: Climate Change and the Role of DDT in Malaria Control  
5 Building Research Skills  
6 Laws, Regulations, and International Treaties  
7 Players, Problem Framing, and Science I  
8 Players, Problem Framing, and Science II Assignment 1 due
9 Players, Problem Framing, and Science III  
10 Players, Problem Framing, and Science IV  
11 The Role of Modeling in Science and Policy  
12 Modeling and Prediction I  
13 Modeling and Prediction II  
14 Modeling and Prediction III  
15 Modeling and Prediction IV  
16 Probability and Risk Assignment 2 due
17 Scientific Uncertainty I  
18 Scientific Uncertainty II  
19 Scientific Uncertainty III  
20 Scientific Uncertainty IV Assignment 3 due three days after Lec #20
21 Looking Back  
22 Is There A Better Way?  
23-24 Final Reports Full report due
25 Final Discussion   Tell A Friend