About Science and Technology in Society

In 2009-10, the University of Waterloo invited applications for the inaugural Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy. This newly endowed chair in the Department of Philosophy, secured through a national competition, was designed to take an institutional, national and international role in the promotion of scientific and technology literacy. The Department sought an established scholar with a record of highly-regarded research and teaching in a relevant field, including Philosophy of Science, Public Understanding of Science, History of Science, or Science, Technology and Society. Through this search the University was fortunate to secure two positions, now designated the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy and the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society. Professor Carla Fehr holds the Wolfe Chair and Professor Heather Douglas holds the Waterloo Chair.

The mandate of both Chairs is to conduct research, teach, and perform public outreach regarding the intellectual foundations, nature and methods of scientific and technological innovation. The Chairs engage in research that advances understanding of key scientific and technological concepts and examines the relationships among science, technology, and broader factors (e.g., social, ethical, political, or economic). They also have development and leadership roles in the teaching of scientific and technological literacy, both within the University and as public education.

History and support

The original Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy (Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy (PDF)) was conceived by a private donor, based on the conviction that it is essential to foster a public understanding of how science works, and how science and technology both change and are changed by societies. The University of Waterloo shares this conviction and has developed the conception of both the Wolfe Chair and the Waterloo Chair into the form described here. The Chair has also received substantial monetary support from businesses in Waterloo Region’s knowledge economy.

Aims and objectives

The University of Waterloo’s proposal for these Chairs identifies two broad motivations for the position.

  • To ensure that all students, regardless of discipline and academic interests, understand the intellectual foundations, human dimensions and impacts of scientific and technological development. There is a pressing need for undergraduates to be well-informed about the historical foundations of contemporary science and technology, the moral, ethical and philosophical implications of modern technologies, and the broader social, economic, cultural and political realities of the 21st century innovations. We live in an era – unique in history – where the speed of scientific discovery and technological innovation far outstrips our capacity to debate and fully understand the implications of rapid and disruptive developments.
  • To ensure that all students, regardless of discipline and academic interests, understand the scientific and technology foundations and imperatives of the 21st century. We live in a time where the new “ologies” – nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology – hold both great opportunity and dramatic risk. Companies and countries are building their plans for corporate and national prosperity on fast-changing scientific and technological developments. To graduate any student in the 21st century without at least a foundational understanding of these technologies and a discerning appreciation of their potential – for good and for ill – is to leave them ill-prepared for the personal and collective choices that await them. To graduate students who do not understand the fundamentals of the scientific method and the assumptions and values that underlie our relations with new technologies is to leave them disempowered and unable to grapple with the greatest challenges of their generation.

The Wolfe Chair and the Waterloo Chair aim to be at the centre of a university-wide initiative to bring all students to a basic level of understanding of science and technology -- their workings, and their implications. This goal of scientific and technological literacy is well-served by the establishment of flagship, university-wide courses designed to provide students with an introduction to the main elements of 21st century science and technology. These courses will draw on the best ideas from all disciplines, thereby introducing the reality and the implications of scientific and technological issues in broad scope.

Together, these Chairs help to stimulate and coordinate scholarly contributions across campus, and beyond campus. The aim is to engage listeners, interlocutors and learners in the academy, in the media, and among policy-makers, thus having an impact not only at the highest scholarly level but also in both the public sector and industry. Those having an interest in these issues are encouraged to contact Professor Carla Fehr and Professor Heather Douglas, and get involved in the conversation.