Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

In-class Expectations

Vigorous discussion based on the readings is expected.

Homework and Team Project Expectations

For weeks 2-5, a short paper is expected laying out the questions and issues. For weeks 6-11, all students should prepare a short paper on the questions and issues with each case. For weeks 6-11, a multidisciplinary team will be chosen for each week. The team is expected to put together and present a comprehensive presentation/paper on the team project. The paper (to which each student is expected to contribute 15-20 pages) must indicate who has written each part and must reflect on the case study through several lenses. The team project should make use of the menu of cross-cutting themes, below. The paper, suitably reflecting major issues raised during class, is due near the end of the semester.


The grading will be as follows:

In-class Discussion 30%
Short Papers 30%
Team Project 40%


Hughes, Thomas P. Rescuing Prometheus. New York, NY: Vintage, 2000. ISBN: 9780679739388.

Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Longman Inc., 1999. ISBN: 0321033256.

Suggestive Menu of Crosscutting Themes

  • The policy process - which interests are represented, and which ones aren’t?
  • How do the key organizations cope with uncertainty about the ET - hedging strategies, preemptive actions?
  • Are there alternative approaches/strategies that would improve upon current methods for dealing with uncertainty?
  • Is new research undertaken to address the acknowledged uncertainties? Why or why not?
  • In retrospect, were some consequences overlooked by interested organizations? Why?
  • In retrospect, were there analyses that could/should have been done that might have improved the decision? Why weren’t they done?
  • What strategies are adopted by interests that feel threatened by the ET?
  • Do technical people working on a new ET make better forecasts of an ET’s implications than other observers do?
  • Is it true that observers tend to overestimate the short-term impacts of an ET and underestimate the long-term impacts?
  • What methods of risk mitigation/management were implemented? How was the acceptable level of risk determined?
  • How do political/economic/social forces influence the engineering/scientific solutions/approaches?

Structured Case Presentations

The second half of the course is devoted to structured case studies and presentations. These class sessions will be structured as follows:

First Hour

Matched pairs of students will present accounts of emerging technology from the recent and less recent past, addressing 2-4 selected crosscutting themes that emerge from weeks 1-5.

Second Hour

A managed discussion about the case material with personal knowledge about how key actual decisions were made in this case. [Ideally, this is a person who has participated/is participating directly in those decisions.] The objective is to allow each student to interact informally with an experienced decision-maker so that he/she understands the intricacies of the case, the factors that actually influenced choices, and the role and limits of formal analytic methods in informing the choices. An academic domain-expert may also join this discussion.

Course Info

Learning Resource Types

notes Lecture Notes