I believe we get exposed to challenges to our ethics on a daily basis. Most of the time; we ignore these challenges but occasionally the price is high and we succumb ever so slightly (and silently).

In the nutshell – ethics is about - as the National Society of Professional Engineers indicates: Engineers, in the fulfilment of their professional duties shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. This applies to all engineering professionals – no matter whether you are an apprentice electrician or Chief Engineer at NASA.

It is thus worthwhile recalling the life of Roger Mark Boisjoly (who died recently on the 6 Jan.’12). He was an engineer at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters for the NASA space shuttle program. While examining, discarded booster rockets from the previous launch, he noticed that the O-ring seals in the rockets had been burned through. He concluded that flight operations in cold weather caused the O-rings to harden and contract, losing their seal and thus opening the door to catastrophic failure. Inevitably, before the next Challenger space shuttle blast-off, temperatures were close to freezing and Boisjoly was alarmed.

The evening before the launch, Boisjoly, urged that the launch be postponed. NASA decided to proceed any way despite objections from Boisjoly. Shortly after lift-off, the O-rings failed and Challenger exploded with numerous deaths. Something that will remain searing on my (and I am sure many of your) memories was the horrible sight of Challenger, an engineering icon, exploding so catastrophically.

The feeling was that the engineers were outranked by the managers who overrode their concerns and ethics were trampled underfoot. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers reminds us (in a nutshell) to:

  • Make the safety, health and welfare of our fellow citizens the highest priority
  • Only work in areas in which we are competent
  • Be truthful and objective in all our communications
  • Adhere to the highest professional standards and avoid conflicts of interest
  • Build outstanding professional reputations around real accomplishments and be fair and considerate in dealings with others
  • Have zero tolerance for bribery, fraud and corruption and uphold the highest standards of engineering
  • Continue enhancing one’s skills in a life long learning process and freely mentor others.

Thanks to the IEEE for an interesting article and Wikipedia for background reading.

You definitely don’t want to do as Darby Conley cynically suggests:

‘Ethics are so annoying. I avoid them on principle’.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve