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Engineer calls for new thinking about ethics

It has been a year since a series of explosions ripped through an oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the surrounding ocean. As the world watches another disaster unfold — the nuclear crisis in Japan — the initial question of “What went wrong?” has now become “How can we avoid it happening again?”

Binghamton University professor George Catalano has a possible solution. But it calls for a wholesale re-examination of the engineering profession’s notions of ethical responsibility. In his latest book, Tragedy in the Gulf: A Call for a New Engineering Ethic, Catalano, a professor of bioengineering, uses the events leading up and to and including the oil spill as the catalyst for a broader discussion of engineering that not only considers the technical side of the profession but also its impact on the environment and society.

“Many different engineering disciplines contribute to the oil industry, as is also the case for nearly all the technologies we use and take for granted,” Catalano said. “So, while the oil spill triggered a personal reflection of my own ethical responsibility in this particular field, the truth of the matter is that it is much greater than just this one industry.”

Catalano said engineering has always been a profession with strong ethical dimensions.  These principles have helped propel technical advancements in every facet of our daily lives. But these developments are being made at such incredible rates that the question Catalano challenges his fellow engineers to answer is whether ethical responsibility both as a profession and through their roles as individual practitioners has kept pace. Catalano argues that it hasn’t.

“Too often, it is only after a tragedy — when we’ve seen the dramatic images and heard from the victims of the devastation — that we pay attention,” he said. “As a profession, we seem even more reluctant to tackle the ethical issues involved. Given the damage of the disaster in the Gulf has done to the environment and to our profession, it’s time to regroup and construct a different vision of the responsibilities we have as engineers.”

Catalano’s proposed set of engineering ethics calls for a union of disparate fields such as quantum mechanics, eco-philosophy and complex systems. When brought together, they present a new understanding of the world.

“In the quantum world, all things are interconnected far beyond the limits of space and time,” Catalano said. “From this, we can learn to draw from the vast array of potentialities rather than limited certainties. To this we must add an eco-philosophy sensibility — one that incorporates a strong grasp of the evolution of the universe and our place and role in that process. Finally, we must incorporate an understanding of complex systems, which in essence is an understanding of indirect effects — meaning if we push a complex system ‘over here,’ it often has effects ‘over there.’ When we put these elements together, we have a profoundly different sense of ethical responsibility both as practitioners and as a profession.”

As this new set of ethics presents a change to business as usual for engineering, Catalano knows it will take time for his peers to even consider it. But there is growing support for his call to action, as demonstrated by an increase in the number of  like-minded colleagues around the world, ranging from a group led by materials scientist Caroline Baillie at the University of Western Australia, to Jens Kabo and his team of budding engineers at Queen’s University in Canada.

“Whether or not anyone finds my arguments compelling doesn’t matter in the long run,” Catalano said. “What does matter is that as a profession we are doing everything we can to safeguard our planet and all of its inhabitants. And for me, that begins in my classroom. I know that I may not be able to change things overnight but I do know I can help influence the next generation of engineers by helping them to think differently about their place in the engineering world and the ethical responsibility that comes along with it.”

Available through Amazon [1], Tragedy in the Gulf: A Call for a New Engineering Ethic was published earlier this year.

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