We Engineers like to think of ourselves as working ethically. The good news is that a recent IPSOS-MORI survey found that 89% of the public trust engineers, putting us third highest in the list behind only nurses and doctors. But a few high profile disasters – notably Grenfell Tower, the 737Max control system failure and the Volkswagen diesel scandal – have raised the levels of scrutiny particularly through social media. The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) and the Engineering Council (EngC) set up an Engineering Ethics Reference Group, with me as chair, to explore how we might improve and achieve greater consistency in Engineers’ approach to ethical decision making as we seek to ensure engineers are more centrally involved making decisions affecting big issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.
At the recent soirée I presented the latest thinking of the Reference Group. I highlighted that there is agreement on the desire to have amongst the most ethical standards in the world, and remaining one of the most trusted of professions by upholding the RAEng/EngC Statement of Ethical Principles. We have been exploring how we can be more effective through five areas: engagement with society, education, professionalism, culture and leadership.
The discussion at the soirée raised a number of interesting issues.
There is a clear tension between the commercial imperative and ethics, but also there is pressure from insurers for silence following breaches in order not to compromise insurance cover. The Reference Group has identified that we need to embrace wider stakeholders, such as insurers and lawyers, in the discussion.
Responsibility is often at organisation or company level rather than just with an individual so it is necessary to be clear about the role of ethics and ethical scrutiny in organisations and companies (and their leaders). Codes mostly consider only individual responsibilities.
Is there anything between legal redress, which can be quite extreme, and Professional Institution sanctions? What about the many engineers who are not members of Professional Institutions?
Many companies operate internationally and some countries may have higher or lower standards.
Education, within Universities and Colleges but also for CPD, is key to putting in place a foundation. The Statement of Ethical Principles and other codes can be highlighted alongside exploring case students.
The Master’s guest, Professor Shannon Vallor, the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh, highlighted the need to flesh out the Statement of Ethical Principles with more specific guidance and coaching on how to put principles into practice, based on her direct experience of changing awareness in US companies.
The Engineering Ethics Working Group is meeting with other stakeholder groups, including the Professional Engineering Institution CEOs, and is aiming to make some recommendations for the Royal Academy and the Engineering Council based on our discussions and consultations.
Prof David Bogle FREng, Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers
(Based on his talk to the Worshipful Company of Engineers on 21 July 2020. The entire 20 minute talk can be viewed on our YouTube Channel here: Engineering Ethics on YouTube)