A debate that’s worth having

The great ethics debate – how much should engineers look into the bigger picture?

Like its readers, The Engineer spends most of its time worrying about how things work, what they might be useful for, and even whether there might be a few pounds to be made from them.

Engineers and technologists are rightly regarded as can-do people, concerned with the practical business of designing, specifying and producing.

It’s also right, however, sometimes to consider the wider context, and in this respect it is interesting to read the contribution of Dr Stuart Parkinson to this issue’s Viewpoint. Parkinson, who is director of a group called Scientists for Global Responsibility, makes a thoughtful series of points on the ethical dimension of the work of engineers and technologists.

The issues he raises include the role of engineers in the defence industry (or as he would have it, the arms trade), and the perception of some sections of the population that technology does more harm than good. You can choose to agree or disagree with Parkinson’s views, but in either case will find them sincerely held and thought-provoking.

The Engineer is not convinced by some of his arguments. For example, the military technology industry is more than capable of standing up for itself, but it is tempting to say in its defence (if you will excuse the pun) that the economic benefits it brings to the UK are unlikely to be as easy to replace as some of its detractors suggest. And the ethical position of any industry is never black and white — even, dare we say, the renewable energy sector has its detractors in this respect.

What is harder to dispute is Parkinson’s proposition that it is important for the engineering and technology community to at least think about these issues. Fairly or unfairly, public perception matters, and Parkinson’s point that engineers rarely get the credit for the benefits they bring to society is surely correct. Yet those benefits are incalculable, and will continue to be so.

Who, for example, is going to come up with the clean energy technologies of the future if not engineers? And as the population of the West ages, its quality of life will be determined not just by the doctors, but by the technology developed by… guess who?

Ethics, responsibility, an awareness of the bigger picture… call them what you will, these issues will increasingly matter when it comes to attracting talented people and doing business. Why else are big companies already devoting so much effort to their corporate social responsibility programmes?

For this reason, Parkinson and the Royal Academy of Engineering, whose own publication on the topic prompted his article, deserve credit. Engineers and technologists have given much to society and have much more to give. Society needs to know that those same engineers and technologists aren’t a group of people who think ethics is the place you drive through on the way to Suffolk.

Andrew Lee
The Engineer & The Engineer Online