Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities

MNF990: Theory of Science and Ethics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

MNF990 is a mandatory PhD-level course for research fellows with The Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

Main content

Course Description

MNF990 is a course in the Theory of Science and research ethics, and is mandatory for PhD students at Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. The course, which is a mixture of lectures and seminars, is given over a period of three weeks. Participants are required to attend 85% of the course, and to submit two written practice assignments during the three weeks the course is held. In addition, an essay is to be written and submitted within two weeks after the course has ended. The two written assignments and the essay form the basis for the evaluation; the grading is "pass"/"fail".

Language of instruction: English


Course content

The course addresses key topics in theory of science and ethical questions of direct relevance for the scientific practice. Examples are: the social organisation of science; academic integrity; the role and ethical responsibility of science in society; dilemmas in contract research; moral dilemmas created by modern science; how science can deal with complexity and uncertainty; and the consequences of training that can shape scientific thinking in an ethics-free and amoral way. The course offers students an arena and opportunity to reflect critically upon their own research.

The course has a core part of seven lectures and seven discussion seminars and a section of nine elective modules addressing specific topics or cases in theory of science and ethics of which each participant has to select three. Students write an essay about an epistemological or ethical problem of relevance to their own research field.

Learning outcomes

The main objectives of the course are for participants to increase their ability to:

  • Reflect critically upon the epistemic foundations of the sciences, as well as the implications for their own research;
  • Understand what science can, and cannot, deliver, and to understand how, and why, this is so;
  • Provide an overview of general debates about the theory of science, as well as perspectives on the relation between science/expertise and society;
  • Relate the debates on the theoretical and epistemic foundations of the natural sciences to similar debates within the humanities and the social sciences
  • Identify ethical questions of general relevance for their research field
  • Explain and prioritize ethical questions of specific relevance for their own projects.
  • Develop an overview of epistemological, ethical and societal aspects of a study/research project in their field.

Study period: Spring and fall semester

Form of assessment

In addition to two written assignments, an essay must be completed within two weeks after the end of the course. The assignments and the essay will be the basis for assessment. The final grade is "passed" or "failed".


The course is taught in concentrated form over a period of five and a half week. All contact hours take place in the first three course weeks. The instruction is a mixture of lectures and discussion seminars. The seminars address specific topics and go through exercises. During the course two written assignments have to be submitted. The final essay is due two and half week after the final lecture.

It is required that the participants actively participate in 80 % of the lectures and seminars and actively participate in at least 3 modules.

Active participation: students are expected to come prepared to class.

Additional requirement for the online-version of the course: respond to at least 80% of the discussion prompts (there is one discussion prompt for each lecture and module), and be prepared to participate in the online class discussions.

Academic responsibility

Professor Jeroen P. van der Sluijs, Center for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT)