book review

In addition to a) immersing themselves in the DC Lead Crisis of 2001-2004, and b) researching a second controversial case of their choosing, students in “Engineering Ethics and the Public” read a book about a real-world, current or historical, engineering/science dilemma. Our overall goal is student exposure to at least three different case studies involving engineers/scientists that:

  • Add depth and texture to our course’s four thematic units – learning to listen (L2L), responsible conduct of research (RCR), responsible conduct of practice (RCP), and witnessing wrongdoing and the obligation to prevent harm (WW), and
  • Highlight prevalent phenomena that are morally relevant to the work-world of engineers/scientists (e.g., the power of institutional culture over individual behavior; engineers’/scientists’ vulnerability to self-deception during times of conflict, stress, or great ambition; and the potential technical and moral value of non-engineer/non-scientist perspectives).

Books we use include:

Below is one version of the assignment:


Students are encouraged to engage with the book both intellectually and emotionally by analyzing a moral issue they find compelling using moral theory, drawing on their artistic imagination, and taking a stance that they defend in class. We use this exercise to support students to think and express themselves in ways not normally encouraged in the classroom, push them outside their personal and professional comfort zones, and enable them to begin to see commonalities between their own sensibilities and those of the publics that they might one day affect.

Here are some examples of pictorial images our students created for this assignment:

An Air that Kills

Book description: Told from the perspective of affected residents, this is a history of corporate mining in Libby, Montana that released toxic waves of asbestos dust into the air for several decades and sickened or killed hundreds of unsuspecting miners and their families. The book chronicles a community’s fight for justice and the formidable obstacles it encountered along the way. The protagonist is environmental public health, as it was assaulted, defended, undermined, and negotiated by a corporation, the government, the legal system, and the public.

Pictorial image, example 1:

Student comment:

Among the many lives impacted by, and lost to, asbestos, I chose to focus on the life of Margaret Vatland. This choice was motivated by one very poetic sentence in “An Air That Kills.” To describe how Margaret was now struggling to get out of bed due to her asbestosis, the authors wrote, and I paraphrase, “this woman who had harvested wheat and taught her kids to swim in the creek, was now stuck in her bed like a butterfly pinned to a board.” I found that description to be very powerful, so in my image I wanted to depict the contrast between the vibrant, hard-working life Margaret had lived, and the manner in which she was dying.


The Ghost Map

Book description: This book details the historic events of August 28-September 8, 1854 when the Soho district of London was struck by an acute cholera outbreak that killed hundreds of residents in a matter of days. The identification of the outbreak’s cause was as urgent as it was daunting. The germ theory of disease was still in its infancy and the miasma theory – which claimed that diseases are caused by toxic air – dominated medical thinking. The puzzle was eventually solved and the medical community’s thinking, changed, by the unlikely partnership between John Snow, a local doctor in his 40s, and Henry Whitehead, a local clergyman in his 20s, who worked painstakingly to amass crucial evidence and did not shy away from transgressing the intellectual bounds of their time. This book demonstrates the power of intellectual paradigms that can constrict the vision even of experts, and the multi-layered challenges one has to overcome to shift dominant perspectives in medicine and science, not only in the 1850s, but also today.

Pictorial image, example 2:

Student comment:

The story in this book, for me, is like a duel between the waterborne theory and the miasma theory. In the hand of the waterborne theory (Like John Snow, Whitehead and Farr), the sword has the persistence to achieve the truth. It has the traits of science and respect for people’s lives. It is a tool that protects people. However, in the hand of the miasma theory (Like Chadwick, Hall), the sword is so arrogant and close-minded. It killed people though it has no idea why it killed people. If the power and tools are in the hand of the right people, it really helps to make life better. Otherwise, the catastrophe comes, like the DC lead crisis.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book description: This is a story about the 1951 discovery of the first immortal line of human cells called “HeLa,” a code name that was based on the first and last names of the woman from whom the cells were taken: Henrietta Lacks. For the past six decades, HeLa cells have been mass produced, commercially sold, and used to help achieve numerous biomedical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, the first animal-human hybrid cells, chemotherapy, cloning, and in-vitro fertilization. Skloot’s narrative foregrounds a side of the HeLa revolution that had received little attention prior the publication of her book: the fate of Ms. Lacks and her family, as well as their controversial treatment by the medical establishment. It also raises complex and timely questions about patient rights and the multi-billion dollar human-tissue research industry today.

Pictorial image, example 3:

Student comment:

I was trying to capture the humanity of death and science by looking at what, in Henrietta’s death, the two extremes (the Lacks family and Scientists) in the book were focused on.  In her death, Henrietta left something very important behind that needed a lot of tending to…for scientists, that was her cells to be studied and manipulated for discoveries that contributed to the betterment for the greater good.  A major theme of this class is the dehumanization of people by scientists of their subject – whether it is denying their informed consent, manipulating their perspective on technically complicated issues, or literally never thinking of them as a human.  For the Lacks family (or maybe just specifically Deborah), Henrietta left behind a mottled legacy that she desperately needs to understand to come to terms with her mother’s spirit that she believes is living on, possibly wrongfully, through her cells.  We see this in the humanization of the storms and in the unforeseen turns in the lives of people that are involved in the story, like our author Rebecca Skloot.

This is what the picture represents to me.  For Deborah, a crumpled up picture of her represents a person that is emotionally and [arguably] physically affected by her desire to know about her mother, the empty focus of her frame.  In a way, she is holding onto very specific but limited information about her mother and we see that represented by the tack at the bottom right of the frame that turns the picture of Henrietta upside-down, which is accurate both in a physical and metaphorical sense. For scientists, the focus is very clearly the cells.  I have cropped Dr. Gey’s head over Deborah’s because in the pursuit of the scientific aspect of Henrietta, save a few, most scientists removed the Lacks’ way of thinking about her mother and imposed their own desires in a way that, by today’s standard, is ethically questionable.


Plastic Fantastic

Book description: This is a book about the rise and fall of research scientist Jan Hendrik Schon, a presumed prodigy in physics and nanotechnology and a celebrated employee at Bell Labs between 1997-2002. In his early 30s, Schon both reeled and enthralled the scientific community when he claimed to have built high-performing nano-transistors out of plastics. Schon’s work was published in the most prestigious science journals and inspired researchers in the US and abroad to invest significant amounts of time and money to try and replicate, if not advance, it. Eventually Schon’s discoveries were shown to have been intentional fabrications. This story offers valuable insights into the history of scientific fraud and Schon’s personal journey of deception, but it also raises important questions about the culture of the scientific community – scientists, scientific journals, employers, and awards – which embraced for as long as it did Schon’s lies.

Pictorial image, example 4:

Student comment:

The picture represents Schon jumping from project to project to run away (avoid answering) criticism and expectations on his former projects from other scientists. The tea in his hands represents truth. The faster he has to run, the more likely the truth will be spilled (revealed), which is what happened to him in the end.


Our ultimate goal is to facilitate a change in how students see themselves and their professional responsibility in relation to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Although we lack long-term data on whether “Engineering Ethics and the Public” is meeting this goal (a survey of course alumni was carried out in Dec. 2015-Jan.2016), we have some evidence that, at least in the short-term, it helps shift students’ thinking in fundamental ways.

We draw on two assessment questionnaires. They are discussed below.

assessment 1

The first assessment, administered at the end of Fall 2012, solicited student views about the main components of the course (e.g., lectures, readings, etc.). Student comments on the L2L unit revealed the following emerging themes:

a. 12 of 15 students noted that their exposure to real-world unfolding cases and the perspectives of marginalized stakeholders rendered engineering ethics “real,” “meaningful,” and “personal” because it gave “a face” to the ideas, concepts, and principles taught in class, making them more understandable and memorable, and inspiring self-reflection;

b. 9 of 15 students noted that their newly acquired ability to investigate a controversy ethnographically empowered them to uncover important dimensions of the case that were absent from official reports, and “brought the case home” on a deeper level than a literature review alone would have allowed.

assessment 2

The second questionnaire, administered in the Fall 2013, was used to compare students’ pre- and post-instruction understandings about key ideas, concepts, and principles introduced in the course. A qualitative analysis of responses revealed several shifts, three of which pertained directly to engineers’/scientists’ relationship with “the public”:

a. At the beginning, students associated engineering/science ethics with abstract rules. At the end, their understanding revealed a shift to how engineers/scientists operate in real-world contexts and, more specifically, to their relationship with the diverse publics affected by their work.

b. At the beginning, students characterized “the public” as different and separate from engineers/scientists (e.g., general population, “herds of sheep,” organizations/companies, etc.). At the end, numerous students described it in relation to engineers/scientists, focusing on the power differential between the two (i.e., the public being affected by engineers/scientists but having limited control over their work).

c. At the beginning, students tended to view engineers’/scientists’ interactions with the public as risky because they felt that individuals who lack proper training can misunderstand or misinterpret technical information. At the end, students added to these risks that the information communicated by engineers/scientists can sometimes itself be inaccurate, incomplete, or even deceptive. Some students also asserted that engineers/scientists should not hesitate to communicate technical information to non-experts because the public has a “right to know” and, when treated with respect, it can be a “powerful ally.”

marc edwards

Screenshot 2015-12-27 10.00.14Marc Edwards, PhD is the Charles Lunsford Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), where he teaches and performs research related to environmental engineering. For over 10 years, he has played a leading role exposing flaws in government agency research and practice in connection to the Washington, DC lead-in-water crisis of 2001-2004. Directly contradicting government assurances that the contamination did not result in measurable public health impact, Marc’s research showed large-scale harm on the District’s fetuses, infants, and young children and helped advance the national conversation about the prevalence and danger of lead in drinking water.

Amongst other distinctions, Marc has received Villanova University’s 2010 Praxis Award in Professional Ethics, a MacArthur Fellowship or “Genius Award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and was listed amongst the foremost innovators in water from around the world by TIME magazine. In 2013 Edwards was the 9th recipient in a quarter century of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Carl Barus Award for “courageously defending the public interest at great personal risk.”

Marc co-founded “Engineering Ethics and the Public” with Yanna Lambrinidou. He is Principal Investigator (PI) on this grant.

Marc can be reached at

learning to listen (l2l)

Learning to Listen (L2L) teaches students the method of ethnographic listening to diverse publics who are affected by engineering practices and products but whose voices are often ignored. It cautions that failure to consider such voices can leave engineers vulnerable to incomplete understanding of complex issues, self-interest, and institutional pressures that can contribute to suboptimal professional decisions, unethical conduct, and even public harm.

Based on the premise that morality is not a fixed theoretical body of knowledge that exists apart from day-to-day living and professional practice, L2L challenges the notion that comprehension of moral codes, theories, and principles alone equips engineers to determine what constitutes “ethical” professional conduct in different contexts and at different times. The training fosters ethical decision-making not as abstract determinations of “right” and “wrong,” but as direct engagement with local experiences, knowledges, and values, and careful assessment of what in each circumstance constitutes appropriate use of professional power and technical expertise.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Recognize that the boundary between a) politically dominant paradigms of engineering/science thought and practice and b) marginalized knowledge claims, is often nebulous and fluid.
  • Recognize that members of the public have the capacity to understand and contribute to engineering/science by expanding, challenging, and even correcting officially-sanctioned beliefs, theories, and knowledge.
  • Begin to practice effective listening to diverse communities and perspectives, especially those traditionally silenced, when making decisions that can affect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
  • Think critically about whether official reports about engineering/science include voices of marginalized stakeholders, and become familiar with a wide range of informational sources beyond official documents and records (e.g., personal narratives, unofficial reports, citizen-led science) to investigate all sides of an engineering/science controversy.

responsible conduct of research (rcr)

Engineering/science research is expected to comply with professional, institutional, governmental, and societal standards. Occurrence of research misconduct, defined by the federal government as “fabrication,” “falsification,” and/or “plagiarism,” can produce results that can mislead experts and non-experts alike, with great cost to individuals within the engineering/scientific community and society at large.

This module explores not only fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, but also a wider array of questionable research practices that can a) skew data and bias authoritative interpretations, b) generate erroneous understandings as well as misinformed decisions and behaviors, c) result in flawed public policy that is presented as science-based, and ultimately d) cause public harm. A central theme of this module is that existing mechanisms for self-correction in engineering/science are often weaker than assumed and frequently subverted by individual and institutional resistance to challenges against prevailing paradigms of thought and practice.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Become familiar with the history and prevalence of research ethics violations in engineering/science.
  • Be able to discuss the broad range of motives, aside from profit, that can lead to violations of research ethics in engineering/science.
  • Recognize the multiplicity and diversity of ramifications that can result from research ethics violations in engineering/science.
  • Describe weaknesses in existing safeguards for detecting and addressing violations of research ethics in engineering/science.
  • Gain appreciation for one’s own vulnerability to violating research ethics in engineering/science, as well as one’s responsibility for and agency in recognizing, exposing, and redressing irresponsible conduct in engineering/science research.

responsible conduct of practice (rcp)

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.

witnessing wrongdoing and the obligation to prevent harm (ww)

The first canon of engineering codes of ethics is what is referred to as the “public paramountcy” clause: engineers’ responsibility to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Yet engineers and scientists are rarely taught how to make informed judgments about what constitutes “health,” “safety,” and “welfare” in different contexts and for different publics, and how to best restore these ideals when they are compromised or violated. Moreover, they often assume that doing the “right thing” to prevent or address wrongdoing necessitates severe forms of whistleblowing that inevitably result in personal and/or professional harm and that should, therefore, be avoided.

This module looks at wrongdoing in engineering/science from the perspective of the witness. It demonstrates that bystander inaction can facilitate, prolong, and/or exacerbate harm not only to the public but also to the engineering/scientific community itself. It considers forces that might prevent moral action and explores a range of responses that engineers/scientists can utilize prior to, or instead of, whistleblowing. Finally, it examines obstacles, risks, and sacrifices associated with attempts to stop wrongdoing as well as rewards that can accompany moral leadership and moral courage.

Key learning objectives of this module are to:

  • Recognize the role of bystanders in facilitating, prolonging, and/or exacerbating harm from workplace wrongdoing.
  • Identify forces in the engineering/scientific community that tend to discourage moral action for preventing or addressing workplace wrongdoing, as well as gain appreciation for one’s own vulnerability to these forces.
  • Identify a broad range of interventions, in addition to whistleblowing, that can be taken to prevent or address workplace wrongdoing.
  • Develop personal principles and habits that can bolster one’s capacity to take action when witnessing workplace wrongdoing.