I’ve had the privilege of knowing and interviewing a number of people who [had the courage to speak out], and I think what makes their courage even more impressive is that they somehow have a capacity to see what the world (or life or a particular circumstance) looks like to the powerless. And that’s really what drives them.

Margaret Heffernan
Author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
TED Radio Hour, 12 December 2014


Screenshot 2015-12-21 14.01.45Florida Avenue row houses, Washington, DC, Josh Bassett Photography

In late 2000 to mid-2001, engineers and scientists responsible for the safety of drinking water in Washington, DC analyzed samples from consumer taps which suggested that lead-in-water levels were rising to hazardous concentrations in tens of thousands of city homes. When over 10% of collected samples exceed a 15 parts per billion (ppb) federal “lead action level,” as was the case in this sampling round, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) requires a series of rapid interventions, including lead service line replacements and intensive public outreach. Consumer education under the LCR is designed to ensure that developing fetuses, infants, and young children, who are especially vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of lead, can be protected from irreversible harm through simple interventions, such as flushing taps before drinking and cooking, avoiding hot tap water to mix infant formula, using filters, or consuming bottled water.

Rather than alert residents to the threat, as required by law and the first canon of civil engineering, the engineers and scientists at the water utility illegally invalidated several elevated lead-in-water measurements, and issued a false report claiming that the District’s water met all federal standards. The utility’s Chief Engineer, who had been kept abreast of concerns about large-scale contamination, later recalled that signing this report gave him a reassuring sense that the crisis had been “averted.” 

As the breadth and severity of the contamination grew to such an extent that lead levels in many homes measured in the hundreds of ppb and sometimes exceeded concentrations classifying water as “hazardous waste” (>5,000 ppb), the problem became impossible to conceal. In need of support, the water utility turned to engineers and scientists at city and federal agencies, asking for guidance on public outreach. Collaboratively, this group issued opaque messages about the hazard, which were consistently incomplete, overly technical, contradictory, and deliberately misleading. Indeed, during preparation for two public meetings scheduled to inform residents about the water utility’s imminent lead service line replacement program, the initiative’s Planning Supervisor, a water utility engineer, emailed her supervisor, also an engineer, to advise him that “the more detailed information that [the utility] can be ready to present on the payment aspects and work logistics, the less chance there is that people may focus on the health aspects [of the program].” She added, “One can only hope.”

It was nearly three years before DC residents were unambiguously informed about the nature of the problem with their drinking water. The news came not from the engineers and scientists entrusted with the protection of the public’s health, but from DC residents, independent scientists, and investigative reporters whose painstaking efforts to uncover the facts culminated in a January 2004 front-page article in the Washington Post. The event and its aftermath are popularly referred to as the 2001-2004 “DC Lead Crisis.”

Subsequent studies by Virginia TechVirginia Tech and the Children’s National Medical Center; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that for hundreds and possibly thousands of DC children, the warning came too late: the years of the contamination had been accompanied by an increase in both fetal deaths and cases of childhood lead poisoning. In temporarily “averting” an institutional “crisis” for the water utility and its partner agencies, the engineers and scientists in the case created a true public health crisis for the residents of Washington, DC – namely, prolonged exposure to a neurotoxin that is known to cause serious and irreversible health harm. In the process, engineers and scientists in multiple government agencies whose very mission it is to protect the public’s health failed to uphold their primary ethical obligation.

what inspired our work

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.

our course

Our experience with the DC Lead Crisis and its aftermath convinced us that engineering ethics, as is often taught, can leave students unprepared to confront the more complex moral dilemmas encountered in professional practice.

The case method, broadly viewed as the best vehicle for professional ethics education and the most popular instruction tool in engineering ethics classes in the US, certainly lends itself to the empirical exploration of engineering and science ethics dilemmas. Traditionally, engineering ethics cases appear in the form of real-world or fictional narratives, detailed or abbreviated, that are used to facilitate moral sensitivity, reasoning, and expression on the basis of moral theory, professional codes of ethics, common morality, and key ethics concepts. They support exercises in identification of relevant facts, definition of ethical dilemmas, assessment of plausible solutions, evaluation of short- and long-term consequences, and determination of morally preferable courses of action. When used successfully, they are believed to operate as cognitive prototypes that can be retrieved at a later time to resolve new, but similar, dilemmas.

Typically, however, the social context of these narratives is deliberately predetermined, and the facts selected for presentation are purposefully fixed. The perspectives of the publics involved are absent or, in the rare circumstances when they are mentioned, are devoid of real-world depth and texture. The relevant ethical questions themselves are predefined and often even disclosed in titles and discussion questions. Ethical reasoning is thus confined to a bounded, “two-dimensional” cognitive space that essentially isolates students from society, and deprives them of the critically important first steps of uncovering the often confusing facts of unfolding ethical dilemmas. In the absence of this process, engineers and scientists can never be sure that their understanding of a case reflects accurately the views and knowledge of its stakeholders – especially in relation to real-world scientific uncertainties, costs, practical benefits, and determinations of acceptable risk. Without extreme awareness of such complexities, engineering and science students may not even recognize that they are involved in a moral dilemma, much less have the capacity and resolve to investigate and gather the facts necessary to begin the resolution process that is typically taught in the classroom.

We built our course, “Engineering Ethics and the Public,” on the conviction that competent ethical reasoning requires engineers and scientists to understand far more than moral theory, professional codes of ethics, common moral values, and the “facts” of engineering ethics cases as typically presented in traditional case study narratives. In our view, competent ethical reasoning also requires ethical contextualism – that is, grounding of ethical dilemmas in the societal context in which they unfold through consideration of diverse stakeholder perspectives, as articulated by stakeholders themselves.

Indeed, if the main obligation of the engineer is to better the human condition through technological solutions to societal problems, then we believe that an empirical approach to engineering ethics education can offer students important insights into how society defines its problems and what engineering solutions it desires. As political philosopher Langdon Winner asserts, “Ethical responsibility now involves more than leading a decent, honest, truthful life, as important as such lives certainly remain… Our moral obligations must now include a willingness to engage others in the difficult work of defining what the crucial choices are that confront technological society and how intelligently to confront them.”

We chose the DC Lead Crisis as our main case study because:

  • It was triggered by multiple illegal and unethical acts involving engineers and scientists;
  • It is a still-unfolding, multi-stakeholder, high-profile case that exemplifies the intricate interconnections between engineering, science, public health, public policy, medicine, law, economics, politics, and the environment;
  • It is documented extensively in numerous primary sources, including newspaper articles, Congressional investigations, court documents, videotaped testimonies, and radio and television programs;
  • It embeds multiple and compelling ethical dilemmas, many of which remain unresolved;
  • It includes a diverse group of stakeholders (e.g., parents, environmental health advocates, whistleblowers, independent scientists, health professionals, science reporters, policy-makers, government representatives), with differing views on what would constitute a proper resolution as well as willingness to share their experiences and perspectives with our students;
  • It is a case that we have studied extensively and discussed at length in Congressional and City Council testimonies, invited lectures and keynote addresses, letters-to-the-editor and radio programs, and peer-reviewed papers.

We believe that unfolding, real-world cases like the DC Lead Crisis have the potential to stimulate students’ moral imagination in ways fictional or closed cases do not. Although we recognize the challenge of using complex and contested cases for ethics instruction in the classroom, we contend that grappling with such cases is a logical and necessary “next step” in applied ethics education. A case like the DC Lead Crisis can place students in roles resembling the real-world workplace, where engineers are often required to make decisions in the absence of all the facts, and where engineering is one of many professions shaping the ultimate outcome.

Questions that such cases raise include not only what constitutes ethically appropriate action, but also how one acts ethically in the face of uncertainty; how one knows that one’s decision is “right” for the specific social context to which it applies; and what responsibility one has for a societal response to which one contributed, but did not fully control. Such cases also offer engineers and scientists the opportunity to see themselves in relation to society, which has been recognized as a necessary condition for “an adequate account of [engineers’] ethical responsibilities.”

Our course lays the groundwork for teaching engineering ethics through application of not only moral theory, professional codes of ethics, common morality, and key ethics concepts, but also ethnographic listening to “thick” unfolding case studies at the intersection of engineering, science, and society. We support students to begin to bridge the relational gap between themselves and the public by helping them to recognize that:

  • Applications of technical expertise are often political. They, therefore, require awareness, vigilance, and moral action to advocate for those in greatest need of technological interventions or at greatest risk of harm from such interventions. Although some may object that an engineer’s/scientist’s involvement in social matters risks marring “objective” knowledge with subjective positions, engineers/scientists assume such positions even when politically inactive. This is because inaction is as much of a political stance as action, albeit one that tends to reinforce dominant systems of thought and power. As such, its political dimensions tend to remain invisible to the profession, which does not mean they don’t exist.
  • The public constitutes a vital resource and potential partner who often possesses information and perspectives that engineers/scientists lack. Knowledge acquired through personal experience or informal channels of learning can in fact expand, challenge, and even correct officially-sanctioned beliefs, theories, and claims, thus providing a form of oversight on professional power that can otherwise operate unchecked and be misused.

Our pedagogy aims at fostering a generation of 21st century engineers who appreciate their social power, professional responsibility, and moral agency as technical experts, and who have the necessary competencies to implement their expertise in socially desirable and just ways.

how to use this site (a suggestion)

The work, resources, and ideas featured on this website are available for use with proper attribution by anyone wishing to incorporate them into their teaching.

Although materials for adopting the DC Lead Crisis as a case study abound (and we are happy to share the resources we use), there are benefits to working with cases close to your specific area of expertise, geographical location, and/or professional interests. Personal involvement in a case can demonstrate for students the challenging and rewarding journey of exploring and uncovering the multiple dimensions of a moral controversy in engineering/science. It can also facilitate rich, long-lasting, and mutually-beneficial relationships with diverse stakeholders. Finally, it can embody cognitive and emotional richness unique to each case and each instructor-stakeholder partnership. Such richness has been found to hold promise for case-based knowledge acquisition and students’ transfer of this knowledge to real-world moral decisionmaking.

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Thank you and best of luck!