ETHICAL AND PROFESSIONAL ROLE OF ENGINEER
Engineering Ethics and the Environment: Ethical and Professional Role of the Engineer
Engineers play an integral role in how our world is designed, built, constructed and maintained. Stovall (2011) pointed out that even though engineers work in a variety of fields such as structural, mechanical, chemical and aeronautics, they all have in common their “involvement in the research, design, construction, and maintenance of the technological and physical infrastructure that underpins human society.” Ethics and social responsibility is considered by some engineers to be an integral part of their professional obligations. On the other hand some engineers might say ‘The ethical and professional role of the engineer is to ensure that engineered goods and services are technically accurate and correct rather than focusing on the impact that the products of engineering may have on the community and environment.’
Research on the subject of professional engineering ethics seems to argue that engineers are responsible throughout the whole process of their projects. That means that engineered goods should work well for what they are designed. Engineered services should also provide the high quality, reliable deliverables that a client or community expects. Not only that but each engineer along with the engineering team developing products and services must also take into account the impact on the community and its natural environment. An argument is made here that each engineer must act ethically so the quality of the engineer’s work is high and everyone can enjoy the positive results. If an engineer decides to ignore a bad design instead of redesigning, or ignore wrongdoing reporting it or not base decisions on ethical guidelines; the engineer is putting some people in society in danger. Cases illustrating an engineer’s impact on the environment are given to demonstrate how even a ‘small’ act overlooked can lead to tragic consequences.
Ethical and social responsibility with Respect to the Environment
Purpose of Professional Engineering Societies
Engineering organizations have developed appropriate codes of behaviour. Engineers meet together in several types of societies in order to share research and brainstorm. These groups also act to reinforce professionalism. The engineering societies hold meetings on the local level as well as on the national and international level. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) defines engineering ethics in the NSPE Code of Ethics. “(a) The study of moral issues and decisions confronting individuals and organizations involved in engineering, and (b) the study of related questions about moral conduct, character, ideals and relationship of peoples and organizations involved in technological development” (Martin & Schinzinger 2005 as quoted on NSPE.org 2012). The first fundamental canon of the Code of Ethics for Engineers (2012) that “engineers, in the fulfilment of their duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, welfare of the public.”
An Engineer’s Creed was written for the profession. Just like doctors have an oath, engineers have the Engineer’s Creed to promise to ‘do no harm.’ Since June, 1954 the Creed has been used for initiation ceremonies, at graduations and when receiving an engineer’s license. Bowden1 (2010) 1explained that the Utilitarianism Theory of John Stuart Mill is the basis for ethics in professional engineering which must be taught to engineering students. The key principles of Mill’s (1683) theory include (a) never cause pain (do no harm), (b) make decisions based on justice, (c) act with moral excellence, and (d) take into account consideration of each individual and their liberties.
Macro-ethical issues: Unanticipated failure and faulty assumptions
Brian Newberry2 (2010) 2from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Baylor University presented a conference report which addresses the macro-ethical issues that resulted in the tragic events during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Micro-ethical issues are those faced by an individual engineer whereas macro-ethical issues are those that have organizational, societal, and even historical inputs. In a case like Hurricane Katrina the evaluation was complicated and many ethical issues were interwoven throughout the history of the building and maintenance of the flood levees. The study of the macro-ethical issues under the topic of ‘unanticipated failure modes’ demonstrated failures of levee breaches and pressure on the I-wall systems that allowed water to flood New Orleans. These failures “should have been anticipated if not for other problems” according to Newberry (2010). The most televised flooding was caused by the failure of the earthen levees along canals. Each levee was equipped with metal sheetpile curtains at the centre. Concrete I-wall systems were built (setting “like caps”) making the barrier between the water and the city higher. The pressure from the water was so high that the sheetpile and I-wall system turned pushing the centre of the levee. This made the barrier only half as effective as they should have been. Bridges collapsed from the pressure of the water becoming deeper and deeper. If there had been counteracting weight on the bridge supports the bridges should have remained whole. Faulty assumptions were made such as how much water could seep under the levees. The period of time a wave had to gather and run up to the levees was miscalculated so the waves were able to flow over the top of the levees when they were at their peak. In fact Newberry (2010) reported that according to the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) (2006) wave periods were three times greater than anticipated by the design. That means that predictions of water depth and wind speeds, for example were underestimated in the design plans. Water level predictions used in the design were based on an old model using sea level so levees were built too low.
Constraints on the Present from the Past
Another problem pointed out by Newberry (2010) was the layer upon layer of planning and actions taken during the historical period from three hundred years ago to the present which negatively impacted the design and resiliency of the levees. This is referred to as the ‘historical contingency and lock-in” in or the present adjustments possible made on past decisions. For example the attempts to keep New Orleans supplied with fresh water and open to shipping trade. The crux of the problem is that human engineering has been working against nature’s natural inclinations in order to keep New Orleans free from flooding. Newberry explained that essentially the purpose of the U.S. Corp of Army Engineer’s Old River Control Structure has been to “divert(ing) seventy percent of the water from the Atchafalya (River) back into the Mississippi.”
Hurricane Katrina Observation
The tragedies following Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flooding events are a startling reminder that a goal of using environmental engineering ethical behaviour is to provide safety for people in their own homes. When the ethical code and rules of engineering are forgotten the consequences are bad and not repairable.
Shrader-Frechette (2011) from the Departments of Philosophy and Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame researched the claims that nuclear energy companies and advocates were making in order to encourage the use of nuclear energy as a ‘clean energy’ compared to fossil fuels. The researcher conducted a survey of thirty industry funded research analysis on nuclear energy. It was found that two important measures of the economics of nuclear energy were consistently under-reported: taxpayer subsidies to the industry and the amount of interest dollar costs that accrue over prolonged reactor construction times. Thirdly the survey demonstrated that the reports exaggerated how much fuel a reactor could take as a load and the lifetime data associated with particular reactors. Shrader-Frechette did note the nuclear energy analysis that did address all the costs, then tried to analyze why the cost-data-trimming was done. She reported six reasons many of them based on historical assumptions about cost and some based on making the data work more favourably for the nuclear industry. The six reasons are listed here. (a) Cost overruns are the norm and more difficult to evaluate at the end of each construction. (b) Different stages of the nuclear fuel processing construction requires bidding orders from vendors at different times which may cause confusion. (c) The nuclear industry as a whole under reports costs so that their product will compete more favourably. (d) Cost misrepresentation could be explained by the incomplete monetary data available in the cost records. (e) There is a clear incentive to make the nuclear industry seem as attractive as possible. (f) Most of the data is compiled and written because of funding from the nuclear industry so some data is excluded as privileged information.
The above list demonstrates many problems with the process of developing the nuclear-cost-studies, maybe the most obvious being the conflict of interest (COI) produced because the studies are funded by the industry being studied. Schrader-Frachette considers four main categories of funding for nuclear-cost studies that offer a gradation in conflict of interest impacts. The most biased are those studies funded by the nuclear industry and take a pro-nuclear power stance. Secondly she found somewhat less impact from COI in a nuclear cost study for which the funders were not identified but that used uncorrected industry data. Thirdly she found that four of the studies she evaluated were funded by non-governmental organization funds and used completely corrected industry cost data. The fourth group of the studies she evaluated were studies partially funded by universities which used completely corrected industry data. COI is not an ethically acceptable practice therefore the nuclear industry should not be funding any of the nuclear industry cost studies. Aside from the conflict of interest the inaccuracies in the reports mean the ability to make satisfactory evaluations and decisions are not possible.
Nuclear Energy Observation
Any action with the intent to mislead the public, government, client or other stakeholders is against the NPSE Code of Ethics for Engineers. The Fundamental Canons make clear that public statements must be made with the spirit of integrity and honesty. Passing on deceptive information such as producing data that is meant to influence decisions in favour of one or another party is not ethical. The rules of professional ethics under the listed Professional Obligations reinforce the concepts listed in the canon. Therefore nuclear industry funded reports on the nuclear industry break the rules of environmental engineering ethics.
This paper addressed only three of the fourteen macro-ethical issues that Newberry (2010) addressed in his research on Katrina and environmental engineering ethics. Yet those three, unanticipated failures, faulty assumptions and constraints on the present caused by the past, were integral in the engineering designs which were ineffective to meet the stresses caused by Hurricane Katrina. In the Katrina example a better attitude by engineers to thoroughly study and address the state of the flood barrier system would have been the ethical action to take. Not all the problems could have been solved but certainly the loss of life and damages to properties could have been less. More people could have returned to their New Orleans homes instead of having to be evacuated to other cities. Shrader-Frechette’s research on the reality of nuclear costs in comparison to the studies reporting nuclear costs is an example of high quality research that proves that an environmental engineering ethical problem exists. The problem is the conflict of interest in the nuclear industry in order to make data look better than the accurate, reliable data may seem. By doing that the nuclear energy industry wants to present itself in a better light. It already has problems due to the knowledge of the population about radiation and the effects of radioactive accidents. To try to manipulate people by misrepresenting data is highly unethical.
This paper has pointed out two cases where ethical and moral actions could make a real difference. The first, the effects of Hurricane Katrina are complicated and interrelated by each engineer doing the best job possible could have made a positive difference. In the second engineers working in the nuclear industry need to take a stand and refuse to make unethical changes in the data to improve the perception of what the nuclear industry can and cannot do.
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Maybe more than any other profession, engineers make decisions and design projects that make our world work properly. Because of this professional engineering societies expect their members to make ethical and moral decisions. At graduation engineering students are given the Engineers Creed. The Code of Engineers developed by the National Society of Engineering Professionals (NSEP) is a good guide for all engineers; especially its first rule to “hold paramount the safety, health, welfare of the public.” Two case studies which demonstrate the way ethical decision making are important are (a) Hurricane Katrina events and (b) nuclear cost studies on the nuclear energy industry. Problems initiated by Hurricane Katrina demonstrate the way poor decision making and history can negatively impact the environment. Nuclear power is a sensitive issue because of the problem with radiation so accurate and reliable data is the only ethical way to report costs in the industry.