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Civil Engineer blog

How ethical are you?

06 January 2020

The University of Leeds launched a consultative 10-year ethics plan for engineers last year. Jim Baxter explains its importance and urges all civil engineers to contribute by 25 January 2020.

How ethical are you?
Statement on Ethical Principles

Since the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council first published their Statement of Ethical Principles for the engineering profession in 2005 (Engineering Council and Royal Academy of Engineering, 2005), the profession has made significant progress in understanding and embedding the values underlying its work.

The statement broke new ground by demonstrating that there is a shared set of values which define ethical engineering work in all sectors. There have been significant efforts to embed these principles, for example by including ethics in the Engineering Council’s UK Standard for Professional Competence (Engineering Council, 2014), against which candidates for registration are assessed, and by requiring accredited engineering degrees to include coverage of the ‘social, ethical and environmental context’ of engineering work.

Fragmented profession

However, in the UK only 222,000 people are professionally registered with a professional engineering institution (Engineering Council, 2019) whereas there are up to 5.5 million people working as engineers (IET, ICE and IMechE, 2016). If an engineer is not professionally registered, they are outside the orbit of professional regulation, have no formal requirement to have gained a prescribed set of knowledge or skills, or to keep that knowledge and those skills up to date through continuing professional development.

It is not just an empty question of nomenclature: the structures of professionalism are the means by which the public are assured that those whose work can affect people’s lives profoundly are competent, and have their interests – not just the interests of their direct clients, but the wider public interest – at heart.

The impact – good and bad – that the work of engineers in all disciplines has on the public is clear and is only going to increase in the coming decades. Technology advances rapidly and penetrates every area of people’s lives. At the same time, the public’s capacity to understand that technology, how it works and what it does, diminishes. More than ever, they need to know that those who work with technology are competent and responsible.

Focusing on ethics

Last year the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre at the University of Leeds launched a ten-year plan to root ethics at the heart of the profession, and for it to become a tool, like the many others that engineers have at their disposal, to guide and inform day-to-day decisions. The plan was written following consultation with the leaders of the profession, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Engineering Council, Engineers Without Borders and the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Called Engineering Ethics 2028 (University of Leeds, 2019), the plan is not just about driving up professional registration; it also contains ideas on improving engineers’ ethical competence, encouraging them to engage with the public on the issues raised by their work, and to take much better account of sustainability and particularly climate change.

The work is considered essential, not because it will improve the status of the profession, but because it will result in an ethical profession that works consistently for the public good.

This article is based on the authors’ briefing article in the latest issue (172 CE4) of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

  • Jim Baxter, Professional Ethics Consultancy Team Leader, University of Leeds