Engineers must embed an ethical approach

3 min read

Does engineering need to do more to embed ethics at the heart of the profession? Dr Jim Baxter, an ethicist at the University of Leeds, thinks so. The public good demands it, as he explains. But you can also have your say.

Engineers make the seemingly impossible, possible.

They fired the industrial revolution. They landed a man on the moon. They’ve built and connected the world’s great megacities.

And undoubtedly they will shape the future. They will find ways to help the world feed itself, keep vast populations on the move, and protect people from the extremes of a changing climate.

artificial intelligence
Do engineers have a responsibility to help ensure that emerging technologies like AI don't undermine our well-being, privacy and human rights? (Credit: Pixabay)

But the challenges in the coming decades are more complex than those faced by the engineers of the past.

Emerging technologies that promise good also pose threats to our well-being, privacy and human rights – and the consequences of inappropriately used technology don’t stop there. They could further damage an already stressed global ecosystem.

Faced with all of this, engineers can draw on a body of ethics and values to help them make day-to-day judgements:  to reach balanced decisions amid the fog of competing demands and competitive pressures.

But is the system in the UK for ensuring engineers are applying those values robust enough?

Back in 2005, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Council jointly published their Statement of Ethical Principles. Those principles placed an obligation on all engineers to act with honesty and integrity, to challenge unethical behaviour – and to hold paramount the health and safety of others.

It says engineers should ’maximise the public good’.

What is fundamentally expected of engineers, the basic moral purpose of their profession, is no different from other professionals, such as doctors. But in engineering there is a weakness - the system for ensuring that ethical values are followed and applied is fractured.

It is the 36 professional engineering institutions (PEIs), working with the Engineering Council, that provide oversight of an engineer’s professional conduct. However, there is no requirement for a practising engineer in the UK to be a member of a PEI.

As an outsider, when I first started working with the engineering profession, I was somewhat taken aback by the extremely low number of engineers who are professionally registered.

The engineer and lawyer John Uff QC conducted a major review into the structure of the engineering profession - UK Engineering 2016. In that review, he quoted estimates that only 15 per cent of engineers, roughly one in six, were members of a professional body.

The consequence of this – which I suspect most members of the public would find shocking – is that the vast majority of engineers fall outside professional oversight.

There is no assurance that they are keeping up to date through continuing professional development.

The serious implications of this weakness emerged with the inquiry into building regulations and fire safety following the Grenfell Tower blaze. Dame Judith Hackitt, who chaired the enquiry, Building a Safer Future, identified “…a lack of skills, knowledge and experience and a lack of any formal process of assuring the skills of those engaged at every stage of the life cycle of higher risk residential buildings as a major flaw in the current regulatory system.”

The inquiry also noted the importance of continuing professional development, particularly when it comes to fire safety, and drew attention to the fact that in other countries, people who work on complex buildings require certification and registration.

I am involved with a ten year plan to root ethics at the heart of the profession, and for it to become a tool, like the many others that engineers have at their disposal, to guide and inform day-to-day decisions.

The plan was written following consultation with the leaders of the profession, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Engineering Council, Engineers Without Borders and the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Called Engineering Ethics 2028, it is not proposing a new ethical code. The values established in the statement of ethical principles published 14 years ago still hold true.

What it aims to do is establish a framework which demonstrates that ethical decisions are being made. And the first objective is to bring more members of the profession within the scope of professional oversight, to include them within the boundaries of the profession either through a process of registration or membership of a PEI or through other measures.

Engineers also need to think about their ethical competence. How good are they at applying ethical principles, do they feel comfortable speaking out if they are concerned about decisions that are being made, and do employers have systems in place to support staff who may be challenging corporate decisions?

Engineering Ethics 2028 calls for responsible innovation where practitioners play a part in the public debate around new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, where it is used to benefit people and not simply to save money.

And of course engineers have to consider the impact of their work on a fragile world and to work in a way that is sustainable.

And if the engineering profession achieves those objectives, they will be fulfilling what is the over-arching duty of engineers: to serve the public good.

Engineering Ethics 2028 was written to provoke a debate about how ethics should operate in engineering. Ethics has always been there. But as the profession moves into a world which is increasingly dominated by technology, the profession has to show that decisions are ethically sound.

Failure to do so risks eroding the standing of engineers at a time when they can grab an opportunity to establish a role as stewards of a future shaped by technological advances.

So it is over to you. You now have an opportunity to comment on Engineering Ethics 2028. The consultation closes in January.

Dr Jim Baxter is Professional Ethics Consultancy Manager at the University of Leeds