UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Developing the next generation of leaders in social change: Q&A with our BSc team

The team behind the Science and Engineering for Social Change BSc give their insights on the programme and the importance of interdisciplinary skills to solving complex global issues.

Professor Joanna Chataway, Head of Department and Professor of Science and Technology Policy, UCL STEaPP

Head shot of Jo Chataway
I’m very much looking forward to welcoming students to this unique interdisciplinary programme which will help them understand the interaction between science, engineering and society from multiple angles. We are really excited about the way we’ve been able to integrate technical and social knowledge in this programme. Decision-makers need both to operate in our increasingly knowledge-based societies.

My research and teaching explore the interface between policy and social, scientific and technical modes of knowledge production and use. For example, I currently lead a project which examines ways in which science and technology contribute, and fail to contribute to, the Sustainable Development Goals. The Science and Engineering BSc really reflects those interests.

The most pressing challenges that we now face require the integration of social, scientific and technical knowledge. We won’t have any success in coping with climate change, for example, without an ability to think across and make sense of knowledge from these different domains. Although less obvious, making our world fairer and less desperately unequal also requires an ability to integrate different kinds of knowledge. The infrastructure required for social and economic development is based on an ability to understand technical and social aspects of development challenges. Our BSc will enable students to think in a more holistic way about societal challenges. The research that we carried out when creating the programme shows that employers fully see the benefits of hiring people who have these integrative capabilities.

Dr Irina Lazar, Science and Engineering for Social Change Programme Leader and Associate Professor (Teaching) in Engineering and Public Policy

Headshot of Irina Lazar
Science and Engineering for Social Change is a thought-provoking programme on many levels, from its intrinsic interdisciplinarity and its very applied nature, to the range of specialists that students will have access to and the innovative pedagogical model it proposes. In my own studies and career, I have learnt to appreciate all these elements and I cannot wait to welcome students onto the programme and play a part in their journeys of learning and discovery. 

My background is in engineering, having initially studied civil and mechanical engineering. I specialised in areas, which on the surface, may not seem as related to this programme as they truly are. Throughout my engineering and academic career, I have become acutely aware of the gap between technological advancement and its implementation on a large scale in society, and of the sometimes narrow solutions we propose for addressing complex issues. This realisation led to my decision to study public policy.

There can be a gap between the skills and capabilities students acquire while studying and the realities of the employment sector. I believe our programme holds the key to bridging this by virtue of its interdisciplinarity, its grounding in today’s local and global challenges and its applied nature. Part of my research focuses on inclusive education and integrating sustainability in Higher Education programmes, topics that strongly tie in with the Science and Engineering for Social Change BSc. 

Our society faces complex challenges that are never perfectly defined, and which require input from a variety of individuals with a variety of perspectives and specialisms. Our graduates will have a unique advantage in having been taught how to holistically address these challenges by appraising a multitude of perspectives and how to make fair and inclusive decisions for improved outcomes in any scenario. I believe this to be highly valuable and rewarding for all those pursuing our programme. Importantly, students will collaborate amongst themselves and with staff, and will be working together with internal and external partners, which will give them an edge in being able to integrate knowledge from across several disciplines, bring people together in the decision-making process, and will ultimately raise their profile on the employment market. 

Professor Arthur Petersen, Professor of Science, Technology and Public Policy and Director of Education, UCL STEaPP

Headshot of Prof. Arthur Petersen
When I see scientific and technological advice going into policy-making, I often wish that this BSc had been invented earlier: governments at all scales are in dire need of people with the skills to assess scientific and technical information in an integrated way that acknowledges deep uncertainty and social values. For instance, analysts should learn as early as possible in their careers that emotion plays a central role in the practices of science and engineering, and that it is fundamentally important to acknowledge that the complexity of the world overwhelms us humans in the practices we are involved in. This BSc degree in Science, Engineering and Social Change will provide graduates with the tools to grapple with uncertainty and complexity and unleash their potential to change the world. 

What I like in particular about this BSc is that it has a unique ‘culture’ strand, where ‘culture’ is understood in its widest possible sense as the field of resources that practitioners in a practice draw on. Multiple cultural practices, such as science, engineering, and politics, intersect in important ways and the graduate of this degree will have a unique handle on the diversity of cultural practices. Those who end up in key public decision-making positions need the philosophical and cultural sensitivities that this degree offers to cope with complex and interdisciplinary issues.

Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation, UCL STEaPP

Headshot of Sir Geoff Mulgan
My modules on the programme focus on collective intelligence and social innovation. Collective intelligence is about joining the dots and seeing how things connect together. The module is designed to prepare the people the world most needs now: people who can understand how the world around us works in all its complexity – from climate change to pandemics - and who have a good grasp of how to change the systems on which we depend. 

The Internet has made it possible to mobilise insights and ideas from millions of people as never before, from Wikipedia to citizen science to the ways companies like Lego involve their consumers in designing products.    

The module will take a broad view of how we use intelligence to solve problems, including data, evidence, scientific and engineering knowledge, insights from lived experience and ideas that may come from surprising places, as well as artificial intelligence. Understanding these – and how to organise them – is going to be essential for anyone who wants to solve challenges like cutting carbon or waste.

The second module focuses on how societies innovate new solutions. We’re used to huge investments in innovation in hardware and technology. But often innovations that are more about how we collaborate together are just as important – social innovations like kindergartens or hospices, microcredit or universal basic income, foodbanks or data cooperatives.

We’ll look at the history of these innovations that have done so much to shape our world and at how, in the 21st century, we can accelerate their development. Where do they come from? How do they grow or spread? What’s the role of social entrepreneurs, or for that matter social movements and governments? Why did President Obama set up an office for social innovation in the White House? And what’s the role of social innovation in getting us to a net-zero society?

James Ford, Lecturer (Teaching) in Civil Engineering Design, UCL CEGE

As a Civil Engineer, I have seen first-hand the impact that can be made by those involved at the interface of engineering and policy.  I have been lucky enough to work on the planning and development of some major projects in London including the Olympic Park, Crossrail and Thames Tideway Tunnel and I have seen how much can be achieved when policy makers and engineers share common goals and values. 

Well-considered policy has the power to encourage, and even force, conversations which, so often, lead to empathy and understanding of issues and needs that are not your own. This is a fundamental building block of “good” engineering. Policy can create environments that foster innovation, inclusion, efficiency, and it can create the opportunities and incentives for many of the challenges we face to be overcome. Policy can also do the opposite and that is why it is so important that those who are involved in this field understand not just what they want their work to achieve but how? This means working with engineers (and others) to understand how they think, plan and operate to achieve their goals and solve problems. This is what excites me about this programme as it seeks to bridge the gap between these two sectors because, when this happens, society benefits.

Dr Adam Cooper, Associate Professor in Engineering Policy, UCL STEaPP

As part of the BSc, I am looking forward to exploring the exciting and creative implications of bringing engineering thinking to policy design together with social science perspectives – potentially changing how we do policy and thinking about how changing the world directly can be a powerful way of building more inclusive, just societies.

My research focuses on how our understanding of the world – including how we change it (ie engineering) – can be better used to make the world fairer. So bringing social science, policy practice and engineering together in new, practical and effective ways.

Our biggest global challenges are rooted in environmental destruction associated with the climate crisis, resource use and food, as well as emerging chronic and acute conflict, and global health – all tied together in the wickedest of problems. We can’t tackle these changes by talking about them or analysing them abstractly with economic concepts, we need to design things that physically alter how we generate energy, how we grow what food, how we manage resources. Engineering provides the best framework for that, but since it got us into these problems we need to make it better to get out of them.