FEATURE: Engineering ethics in the spotlight

Tanya Weaver

Engineers have a professional duty to act ethically, but what does this mean in practice? (Credit for all images: Shutterstock)
Engineers have a professional duty to act ethically, but what does this mean in practice? (Credit for all images: Shutterstock)

Being an engineer comes with an enormous amount of responsibility, never more so than in today’s world with our climate-change emergency and the issues arising with advances in technologies. It’s often been said that engineers shape our world and, as the engineering profession acts in the service of society, there is an obligation, in the face of these challenges, to help create the best-possible world.

And society largely trusts that engineers will do this. According to the 2021 Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, engineering is the sixth most trusted profession in the UK with eight in ten people (84%) trusting that engineers will tell the truth.

But trust can also quickly be eroded. When things go wrong in engineering, the results can be catastrophic. 

A high-profile example is the 2015 VW emissions scandal. The car manufacturer eventually confessed to having cheated emissions tests on 11 million vehicles worldwide. It was revealed that the output of the engine management system was falsified to make diesel cars appear far less polluting than they were. As a conscious decision, this is an example of very unethical practice.

Similarly, in the aviation industry, the Boeing 737 MAX airliner was grounded following two crashes in late 2018 and early 2019 killing more than 340 people. Following an investigation, the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee final report concluded: “Technical design flaws, faulty assumptions about pilot responses and management failures… played instrumental and causative roles in the chain of errors.” 

Technology bias

Alongside such high-profile cases, there are other examples of new technology or products that raise questions about the ethical behaviour behind their development. For instance, in 2020 reports were coming in that during Zoom video calls the faces of black and dark-skinned users were disappearing into their virtual backgrounds. This was because the facial recognition technology that determines what parts of the screen show the user and what parts show the background image was not recognising their skin tone. This highlights an issue of technology bias during the development and testing processes.

Even products that are considered to be ethical are being held up to public scrutiny. Electric cars, for instance, may seem to be the ‘greener’ choice but there are many debates as to how ethical they really are. A key issue is the mining of cobalt for the lithium-ion batteries. This rare-earth material is being mined in developing countries and there are many exploitative labour practices associated with that.

These ethical scandals, issues and debates no doubt make the public question their trust in engineers and engineering companies. With the challenges we are facing in our world today and the high expectations of the public, engineers must be committed to behaving ethically. But what is the state of ethics in engineering and what do engineers understand by ethics? 

As Gary McIntyre, head of product engineering at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), explains, the challenge with ethics is that it has become much more broad and nuanced than when he started in the engineering industry more than 30 years ago. “Ethics is not a standalone subject. It is interlinked with issues concerning health and safety, sustainability, climate change and diversity,” he says. 

“Often when I ask an engineer, ‘What do you understand by the term ethical engineer?’ I’ll get silence. But really it’s just about being honest, acting with integrity, practising competency and continually broadening your knowledge and skills, which is something I have to do in my work as we’re continually pushing the boundaries of technology.”

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Safety is paramount

Ethics is often described as doing what feels right or doing the right thing. But how do you define the right thing? Rafaella Ocone, professor of chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University, explains that “the right thing is being something that you are sure will be good even when nobody’s looking at you”.

Ocone, who chairs the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Teaching Ethics group, is a strong advocate of ethics being, rather than simply ‘bolted on’ to engineering, integrated in all decisions that engineers make. In her view, this will lead to the development of responsible technology. 

Abstract approach

However, the truth is that in many engineering projects the right solution is often the one that can be developed as quickly as possible at the lowest cost. This is certainly the experience of Matt Studley, associate professor of technology ethics at the University of the West of England. “I’ve seen with many young researchers and young engineers, who although they may think about the ethics in an abstract way, the focus is mostly on what’s the next thing that needs to be done to achieve the minimum viable product,” he says. 

“Over the years I’ve also worked with small firms that have asked for my technical advice on robotics projects. Although I might express concern about some fundamental ethical problems with what they’re proposing, the response is often that, although they are aware of this, they will worry about it once the product is finished. As an approach to managing technology that’s really bad. But I think that’s probably where we are,” adds Studley.

Fortunately, to avoid creating such technologies in which the consequences are unknown, there are regulations and standards in place to control development, set rules and drive ethical behaviour. “The concept of standards is very useful, because it enables us to sidestep a lot of the philosophical complexity around ethics, because, rather than us having to work all of this out for ourselves, for this company, in this environment and with this product, we can refer to an external standard,” says Studley.

But technologies are developing so quickly that new standards need to be introduced just as quickly. As Studley says, there are more than 100 standards, guidelines and sets of principles emerging just in robotics. However, these strict standards aren’t always seen positively by the companies constrained by them. The argument is that some regulatory frameworks may stifle innovation as other countries may not have the same standards in place and so similar technologies are already being tested and operated elsewhere. On the other hand, technological development needs to be constrained to ensure the creation of ‘technology for good’ that protects both human life and the environment. Take the rise in autonomous systems, such as those in autonomous vehicles, where the technology is making safety-critical decisions.

Codes of conduct

Another approach to drive ethical decision making among engineers is a commitment to their company’s code of conduct. Indeed, chartered status and registration with professional institutions such as the IMechE also helps ensure that responsibilities are carried out in an ethical manner in line with these institutions’ codes of conduct. But an ethical culture can only be embedded in a company if individual engineers are committed to a code of conduct with the support of their employers.

How can we ensure that individuals adopt ethical thinking? One proposal to promote a more ethical culture within the engineering profession is through education and training. Indeed, many university engineering courses are now integrating ethics as part of their teaching rather than just having a single module on the subject. 

Ethics toolkit

Ocone has been instrumental in devising the Engineering Ethics Toolkit aimed specifically for use in higher education, produced in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering. She says: “Rather than a standalone module, ethics should be considered in relation to the whole curriculum. This toolkit provides case studies that give students the opportunity to see ‘ethics in action,’ showing that ethics is intrinsic to the engineering discipline. The hope is that when they leave to become professionals in industry they will have this ethical thinking embedded into their own way of thinking.”

This is all very well for those entering the profession but what about the 8.1 million people who are already part of the UK’s engineering economy? Many of the institutions are stepping up to raise awareness of the importance of ethics in engineering. The IMechE has established an Ethical Principles Committee with the aim of raising the profile of ethics and to share stories among members.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council have their own initiatives in this area. In a February 2022 report entitled Engineering Ethics: Maintaining Society’s Trust in the Engineering Profession, which was written with the help of the Engineering Ethics Reference Group, they set out a framework and roadmap of actions to encourage engineers and engineering technicians to think about ethics. The Royal Academy recently published a new audit report on engineering ethics.

Ocone, who is a member of the group, supports a framework for ethical practice. She says: “I would like to think that we will gradually get to the point where ethics in engineering decision-making has the same accepted centrality that health and safety now has in our industry. Forty years ago, health and safety was not the same as it is today. But through building a culture of continuous improvement, health and safety within companies is now very good. We should follow the same methodology – embed it at university and then have frameworks for companies. Then once it is part of the culture we won’t need the frameworks any more.”

Need for training

However, that will take time and surely we need engineers to behave ethically now. A proposal by Emma Crichton, head of engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK, is that all those in the profession need to be trained in ethics. She argues: “In our industry, we’re generally so obsessed with productivity but we have a huge sustainability and an ethics skills gap, and we need the space and time to address that. It’s fundamental. We can produce resources and resources and resources, but people still won’t have time to use these for upskilling and training. So we’re still not solving the problem, because the time piece is really critical.”

As a profession that values its self-regulation, what happens if there are unethical practices and it’s uncovered that an engineer is not responsible enough to hold self-regulation? Studley proposes that they be struck off. He says: “In professions like nursing and medicine you have to be fit to practice and, if you stray too far in your work away from a code of ethics and code of behaviour, then you can be struck from the register, and you can no longer practice within your profession. I’m sure many engineers would not be very keen on a similar idea in our profession but I think some sort of fitness to practice or professional regulation might be really important.”

There are certainly some big challenges on the horizon and the engineering profession will have to work hard to ensure that the public continues to have confidence that it is acting ethically in how it deals with these challenges. As Crichton points out, “Engineering has had a big impact in our world, good and bad. We will continue to have an impact, good and bad. What kind of impact do you want to have?”

This article originally appeared in Professional Engineering Issue 2, 2023. 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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