As tragic as the DC Lead Crisis turned out to be, it was not the first or last case in which engineers and scientists engaged in wrongdoing that jeopardized, if not caused serious harm to, the public’s health, safety, and welfare. Just in the last few years similar cases involved New York State’s controversial Peace Bridge Project; the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality‘s oversight of drinking water safety in the city of Flint; and General Motors‘s and Volkswagen‘s substandard vehicle production. Problems in the first three of these cases were first identified and brought to public attention by affected consumers. Consumer experiential knowledge was what brought the DC Lead Crisis to the surface as well.
Indeed, cases such as these seem to be “unusual” only to the extent that the severity of the harm was eventually uncovered and documented. Similar failures by engineers and scientists were highlighted in a series of Congressional investigations in 2009. Resulting reports highlighted the public’s prolonged exposure to known or suspected environmental contaminants, such as formaldehyde from contaminated trailers by Gulf Coast survivors in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; asbestos from a manufacturing plant on the shore of Lake Michigan; depleted uranium and other toxic chemicals from US Navy bombing practices on and off the coast of Vieques, Puerto Rico; and trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, and benzene in the drinking water consumed by Marine Corps service members and their families at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 1953-1987.
On a daily basis, the 3.5 million engineers and scientists working in the United States make complicated and critical decisions that ultimately affect the public: their often-unseen client whose safety, health, and welfare they are expected to hold paramount. In response to other, more visible and obvious clients, and an array of professional, organizational, financial, and political pressures, engineers’ and scientists’ moral obligation to keep their gaze on the protection of individuals they might never meet can be difficult. Indeed, it was at least in part the failure to treat the public’s safety, health, and welfare as the overriding concern in a series of catastrophic events during the 20th century (e.g., the atomic bomb in 1945, the Ford Pinto case in 1981, the Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal in 1984) that drew public attention to the ethical duties of engineers and scientists, propelled vigorous writing of professional codes of conduct, and established the academic discipline of engineering ethics.
The growing multi-cultural and international dimensions of engineering and science; the increasing reliance on interdisciplinary, inter-organizational, and team-based collaborations; the rising competition in the technological marketplace; and the trend toward budget cuts and overall decreasing financial resources for science are creating pressures that are increasingly distancing engineers and scientists from the publics they serve. Yet, as a growing number of real-world cases are showing, the needs, values, observations, and knowledges of those publics can provide crucial insights into engineers’ and scientists’ areas of technical expertise and moral responsibility.
Inspired by our own involvement in the DC Lead Crisis, our work combines personal experience with engineering, science, social science, ethnography, and activism. It is based on the premise that engineers who become alienated from their public clients are also more vulnerable to self-interest, self-delusion, and institutional pressures that can contribute to unethical conduct and, ultimately, result in public harm. Our goal in teaching engineering ethics is to help students bridge this relational gap.