Science and Society: Through the Lens of Covid-19

Instructor: Harold Varmus
Wednesdays, 5:00 – 7:40 PM
Macaulay Honors College, Online
Course Code: MHC 360

In the previous four years of this seminar course, we have examined the relationship of science and society from numerous perspectives, using examples from many fields of science. In the 2021 version of the course, we will focus on an early appraisal of that relationship mainly in the context of the still on-going pandemic, Covid-19.

In general terms, skepticism about science in the current administration has focused attention on the many roles of the scientific enterprise in human society, especially at a time when science offers defenses against climate change, disease, famine and drought, environmental loss, and other threats. While we will continue to take a broad view in this course of the areas of science on which human societies depend, the 2021 version will focus most intensely on the ways in which our society—its governments, the public, scientific institutions, and others—have responded to the profound crisis of Covid-19.

As in the past, I will aim to engage students majoring in the sciences or in the humanities in lively discussions about a wide range of pertinent, underlying questions: Why and how does society support science? How does the scientific enterprise evaluate, disseminate, and apply its discoveries? How is science portrayed in the arts? What constitutes aberrant conduct and inequity in science? How is science regulated, used in the courts, and commercialized? We will continue to approach these issues through short readings about the current pandemic, the history and practice of science, my own experiences working in federal science agencies, current events (including the consequences of the 2020 election), novels, movies, journal articles, and other materials. Individual mentoring and a short independent project (with oral and written presentations) are part of the fun.

The syllabus and materials from earlier years are available at the course website here