Editor’s comment: Think ethics before action…

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

02 April 2022

Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT
Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT

As a new report on Engineering Ethics is published, let's explore the role & importance of ethical decision making, culture & practice in maintaining society’s trust in the engineering profession…

This editorial leader was originally featured in the April 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

A new report, Engineering Ethics: maintaining society’s trust in the engineering profession, was published a few weeks ago by the joint Engineering Ethics Reference Group, established in 2019 by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council. The report, which includes a roadmap of short-, medium- and long-term recommendations and actions, aims to ensure that ethical culture and best practice become embedded in the engineering profession in the same way as health & safety considerations. At the heart of the report, says the Academy, is the need to retain public confidence in the ethical behaviour of engineers…

Doctors have a moral duty to their patients, first and foremost. Lawyers have a moral duty to justice. But what about engineers? For a sector that employs 5.7 million people in the UK alone, notes NGO, Engineers Without Borders, which aims to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering, we continue to have a surprising lack of clarity around our commitments to people and planet.

Royal Academy of Engineering & Engineering Council_Engineering Ethics_maintaining society’s trust in the engineering profession_report front cover
Royal Academy of Engineering & Engineering Council_Engineering Ethics_maintaining society’s trust in the engineering profession_report front cover

The Engineering Ethics report notes that while reported public trust in engineers (as measured by the 2021 Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, which ranked engineers as the UK’s 6th most trusted profession, behind nurses and doctors) remains high, the ever growing expectations of society, coupled with new advances in technology (including AI and autonomous systems), mean that engineers must continually evaluate how ethical behaviours may need to improve and evolve. Inevitably, there will always be tensions between profitability, sustainability and safety that engineers should seek to be aware of and need to balance.

The report also recognises that the engineering profession has been working for many years on embedding ethical culture and practice into itself, including operating sustainably, inclusively and with respect for diverse views. Engineering Ethics marks the next step in this work, summarising progress so far and recommending actions that reinforce benefit to society, while seeking to embed an ethical culture of continuous improvement. It encourages all engineering organisations and employers to consider what they should be doing to embed ethical thinking more strongly in all the profession does – calling for a step change in ethical decision-making similar to that achieved in health & safety.

Professor David Bogle FIChemE FREng, Chair of the Engineering Ethics Reference Group, said: “Engineers act in the service of society, making decisions that affect everyone, from small-scale technical choices to major strategic decisions that can affect the lives of millions – and even the future of our planet. We want to make sure that ethical practice is at the heart of all these decisions.

“Our vision is that UK engineering ethics principles and practice are regarded nationally and internationally as world class, with ethics embedded in engineering culture such that society can maintain confidence and trust in the profession. Realising this goal will require collaborative action and shared responsibility. But this is essential if we are to retain public trust and attract young people into the profession who truly reflect the diversity of society – and who will help achieve a sustainable society and inclusive economy that works for everyone.”

The actions suggested by the report are grouped under five themes, and are all drawn from feedback from the profession, with the aim of fostering a culture of ethical debate and accountability. They aim to increase awareness of ethical issues within the engineering profession and improve engineers’ ability to both deal with, and call out, bad practice.

The themes are:

•    Leadership & accountability – including encouraging behaviours that can be practised across all levels of the profession, not just by senior members.

•    Education & training – to improve how ethics is understood by those in the profession.

•    Professionalism – encouraging engineers to ‘Think ethics before action’.

•    Engagement – maximising engagement with society and industry to foster public awareness of ethics in engineering.

•    Governance & measurement – benchmarking against and learning from other professions.

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council have agreed to take forward the proposed actions, with the support of the other professional engineering institutions, and a new governance framework is proposed to manage this process. The Academy is also publishing 12 new case studies, designed for use in engineering education and for individual engineers, to help illustrate ethical issues.

EPDT April 2022 cover image
EPDT April 2022 cover image

Ultimately, this determination to develop a world class culture of ethical behaviour in engineering can only be a good thing for engineers and the profession, as well as for wider society.

EPDT's April 2022 issue also contains features on Power technologies and Automotive applications. Read more on what's inside EPDT this month

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