The term engineering/science “best practices” usually refers to compliance with technical standards, professional codes of ethics, and laws. But engineering/science practice also involves the crossing over of expert knowledge from the “lab” into the public sphere. There, practitioners are asked for their authoritative input into real-world problems, questions, controversies, and disputes. Social arenas in which engineers/scientists find themselves include the world of public education and communication, private and public consulting, public policy making, and the courtroom. Although it is rarely examined in graduate training curricula, the transfer of technical expertise in real-world settings is rarely as simple as a value-free knowledge-sharing exercise. Rather, it often requires value judgments that are intrinsic to advice-giving on any subject, and especially on those that are contested or embody uncertainties. It can also involve authoritative knowledge claims that have limited, if any, connection to one’s technical expertise.
This module foregrounds the potentially complex implications of engineering/science practice when practitioners are a) unreflective about how their own personal and professional trajectories, values, and commitments color their practice, b) not fully aware of conflicts of interests underlying their thinking, and c) uninformed about the histories, experiences, resources, values, and interests as well as differential financial and political power of the diverse groups of stakeholders their input may affect. By emphasizing the necessity to gain awareness about the political aspects of their practice, including how such practice may promote or undermine local definitions of social justice, this module asks students to:
- Consider engineers’/scientists’ social power;
- Explore the ethical dimensions of transferring engineering/scientific knowledge to non-technical audiences, and the unique responsibilities that such a task entails.
Key learning objectives of this module are to:
- Be able to discuss the complex interconnections between a) engineering/science practice and b) personal, professional, and institutional commitments that can influence one’s involvement in the public sphere.
- Be able to describe expressions of engineers’/scientists’ social power as well as how misuses of this power may result in exploitation, injustice, and/or harm.
- Recognize the broad range of motives, aside from profit, that can lead to questionable, improper, or illegal engineering/science practice.
- Gain appreciation for one’s own vulnerability to misusing one’s social power, as well as one’s responsibility for and agency in recognizing, exposing, and redressing irresponsible conduct in engineering/science practice.