Professional Responsibility: the Role of Engineering in Society

Topics: Engineering, Design, Mechanical engineering Pages: 7 (3074 words) Published: November 5, 2010
PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY: THE ROLE OF ENGINEERING IN SOCIETY S.P. Nichols and W.F. Weldon Center for Electromechanics, The University of Texas at Austin, USA Keywords: professional responsibility, engineering ethics, engineering responsibility. Abstract We argue that the practice of engineering does not exist outside the domain of societal interests. That is, the practice of engineering has an inherent (and unavoidable) impact on society. Engineering is based upon that relationship with society (inter alia). An engineer's conduct (as captured in professional codes of conduct) toward other engineers, toward employers, toward clients, and toward the public is an essential part of the life of a professional engineer, yet the education process and professional societies pay inadequate attention to the area. If one adopts Skooglund's definition of professional ethics (1) (how we agree to relate to one another), then the codes of professional conduct lay out a road map for professional relationships. As professionals, engineers need to internalize their codes and to realize that they have a personal stake in the application of codes as well as the process of developing the codes. Yet, most engineers view professional codes as static statements developed by "others" with little (or no) input from the individual engineer. Complicating the problem, questions of professionalism (such as ethics) are frequently viewed as topics outside the normal realm of engineering analysis and design. In reality, professional responsibility is an integral part of the engineering process. Introduction The essence of engineering is design. B. V. Koen (2) This article examines the relationship between engineers and society, and engineers' professional responsibilities given that relationship. This examination is particularly important for engineers in the execution of their professional responsibilities, and for students preparing to enter fields of engineering. A review of the literature yields a series of discussions on the definition of an engineer, descriptions of the design process, and of "what engineers do" (3-6). Articles and books also explore topics such as the professional ethics of engineering and legal aspects of engineering (7, 8, 9). Recently, Davis presented a useful historical perspective of engineering ethics (10). Yet, differences exist as to what engineers do (e.g. Spier (11) vs. Koen (3)). This article examines relationships between engineers and society, and though it touches on topics relevant to the definition of engineering, it does not attempt to develop a new definition. The Role of Engineering in Society: Engineering Design Some will say that I'm an academic and that I'm supposed to be a scientist, but I have this craving to be an engineer. Waldron (12). The National Research Council recently recognized the need for improvement in both engineering design and engineering design education (13). Although there are numerous articles on engineering design (14-18), we will concentrate on the interaction between engineers and society. One of the first sources of confusion, particularly among those who are not engineers or scientists, is the distinction between science and engineering (10). The primary role of science is to develop knowledge and understanding of the physical universe (11). As pointed out by Davis (10) and others, an important

distinction is that this pursuit of knowledge (science) may occur largely without regard to societal need (or to societal implications). The direction of scientific research has been described by some as curiosity-based research which is not necessarily driven by the values of society. Societal values (and resulting priorities) do not necessarily define the bounds, direction or scope of scientific curiosity. * This is not a criticism of science, for such is the nature of "inquiring." Furthermore, it is often not possible to determine relevance of a particular field of scientific inquiry...
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