A question of ethics

Engineers must address issues of social and environmental responsibility or risk being seen as part of the problem not the solution, argues Stuart Parkinson.


The public can be slow to thank engineers and scientists for useful inventions and projects, but is quick to blame us when our professional activities contribute to global problems.


Critics, for instance, point out that scientific research has given us technologies that threaten our environmental life-support systems, and engineers make weapons of war.


There is also a perception held by a significant number of people that the benefits of science and technology are starting to be outweighed by the damage. Such a perception may even be part of the reason why it is increasingly difficult to attract undergraduates to study engineering.


the Royal Academy for Engineering (RAE), in collaboration with several other engineering institutions, has responded to this criticism with the launch of a guide for engineers, ‘Statement of Ethical Principles’.


Professional institutions have long had ethical codes for their members, but what makes this document different is that it is intended to apply right across the engineering professions, and goes beyond the usual ‘do your job competently’ advice to include wider issues such as environmental sustainability and social justice.


This is undoubtedly a positive step, stating that engineers ought to ensure that ‘all developments meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations meeting their own needs’. Still, the statement does need to be strengthened. One concern is that ‘wealth creation’ is apparently being prioritised in the phrase ‘minimise and justify any adverse effect on wealth creation, the natural environment and social justice’. Wealth creation has become a mantra in recent years and in practice is generally interpreted in a very narrow economic sense.


An explanation, perhaps, can be found in the government’s 10-year science and innovation strategy, launched two years ago. This firmly places economic goals at its heart. Yet it is just such a focus — with big business playing a major role in setting the agenda — which is central to the criticism that social and environmental priorities are not being given nearly enough priority in the engineering sector.


Added to this is concern about the high degree of involvement that the military has in UK engineering. It is a fact that we spend more on our armed forces than any country — apart from the US — with technology spend increasing while military personnel is being reduced.


The UK is also home to the largest military corporation outside the US (BAE Systems). And we are heavily involved in the highly controversial international arms trade. So it is of concern that the RAE’s ethical principles have no explicit mention of military issues.


So what action should be given more priority?


An obvious candidate is the government’s target of a 60 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 to help tackle climate change. It is widely agreed among climate scientists that at least that magnitude of cut is needed — but not nearly enough is being done to achieve it. Engineering will play a critical role in getting to that target, not least through development and deployment of renewable energy, energy efficiency, distributed energy and other technologies.


There are, however, serious grounds for questioning the level of commitment in the engineering sector. Yes, some of the big energy corporations have set and achieved internal targets for emissions reduction — but their targets apply to reducing their own energy use rather than, for example, reducing the fossil fuels they sell.


Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is the way that at a time when the government admits that the UK is safer from invasion than ever in our history we still maintain such a large military and military technology industry.


A recent estimate by the British American Security Information Council suggests that each job in the military export sector is subsidised by up to £14,000. Yet some of the larger engineering corporations and trade unions argue that these large subsidies should be retained while, for example, so many renewable energy companies (which arguably have better economic and employment prospects) fail to get adequate support.


In short, the UK engineering sector could take a much more proactive role in helping to tackle major environmental problems and social injustice. Only then can we claim to be taking ethics seriously.


Dr Stuart Parkinson is director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, an organisation of scientists, engineers and other professionals whose aim is to promote ethical science, design and technology. His background is in engineering and environmental science.