UK engineering community urged to ‘Think ethics before action’

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council have called for a step-change in ethical decision-making, similar to that achieved in health and safety.

The new report – ‘Engineering Ethics: maintaining society’s trust in the engineering profession‘ – has been published with the aim of ensuring that ethical culture and practice become embedded in the engineering profession in the same way as health and safety considerations.

The report has been produced by the joint Engineering Ethics Reference Group, established in 2019 by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council, and includes a roadmap of short, medium and long-term actions to embed ethical best practice. At the heart of the report is the need to retain public confidence in the ethical behaviour of engineers.

While reported public trust in engineers remains high (a 2021 poll ranked engineers as the sixth most-trusted profession, behind nurses and doctors), the ever-growing expectations of society coupled with new advances in technology mean that engineers must continually evaluate how ethical behaviours need to improve and evolve. Inevitably, there are tensions between profitability, sustainability and safety that engineers seek to be aware of and need to balance.

The report notes that the engineering profession has already been working on embedding ethical culture and practice into the profession, including operating sustainably, inclusively and with respect for diverse views. Together, such behaviours can make a profession aspirational and trustworthy, but also require a culture of continuous improvement.

The ‘Engineering Ethics’ report marks the next step in this work, summarising progress so far and recommending actions that reinforce benefit to society while seeking to embed an ethical culture of continuous improvement. The report encourages all engineering organisations and employers to consider what they should be doing to embed ethical thinking more strongly in all that we do.

The actions suggested by the report are grouped under five themes and are all drawn from feedback from the profession, with the aim of fostering a culture of ethical debate and accountability. They will increase awareness of ethical issues within the engineering profession and improve engineers’ ability to both deal with, and call out, bad practice.

The five themes are:

1. Leadership and accountability: Maintain position and recognition as leaders in driving ethical standards and practice forwards, where leadership means encouraging behaviours that can be practised across all levels of the engineering profession, not just by senior members.

2. Education and training: Support and maintain a consistent and coherent approach (across HE/FE/CPD) to improve the quality of how ethics is understood by those in the engineering profession.

3. Professionalism: Engage with the profession to maximise adoption of professional values, ethics and practice. Encourage engineers to ‘Think ethics before action’. Maximise the number of professionally registered individuals in the engineering community to uphold ethical practice and increase the accountability of individuals against ethical standards.

4. Engagement: Maximise engagement with society and industry to foster public awareness of ethics in engineering. Stress the centrality of ethics to the engineering profession, promoting debate and learn how this may influence our ethical responsibilities.

5. Governance and measurement: Understand ethical culture in the engineering profession, benchmark against and learn from other professions, and set targets and develop tools and guidance for future improvements.

Professor David Bogle FIChemE FREng, chair of the Engineering Ethics Reference Group, said: “Engineers act in the service of society, making decisions that affect everyone, from small-scale technical choices to major strategic decisions that can affect the lives of millions and even the future of our planet. We want to make sure that ethical practice is at the heart of all these decisions.

“Our vision is that UK engineering ethics principles and practice are regarded nationally and internationally as world class, with ethics embedded in engineering culture such that society can maintain confidence and trust in the profession.

“Realising this goal will require collaborative action and shared responsibility, but this is essential if we are to retain public trust and attract young people into the profession who truly reflect the diversity of society and who will help achieve a sustainable society and inclusive economy that works for everyone.”

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council have agreed to take forward the five proposed actions with the support of the professional engineering institutions and a new governance framework is proposed to manage this process. The Academy is also publishing 12 new case studies, designed for use in engineering education and for individual engineers to illustrate ethical issues.

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