Monday, January 31, 2011

Readers Respond to Poll on Real Engineering Ethics Problems

Two weeks ago I asked readers to send me stories about authentic engineering ethics problems they have run into. Numerically, the response was not overwhelming (I think I got three replies), but all of them were worth reading. And one reader in particular (who has requested anonymity) came back with several stories that made the whole effort worthwhile.

One reader in Australia noted the conflict between natural resources and farmland, on the one hand, and the needs of extractive industries such as mining, petroleum, and lumber on the other hand. Australia, with its proximity to the increasing demands of developing Asian countries such as China for raw materials, faces this problem in an especially pointed way, although it is truly a global issue.

Another reader points out that while engineering codes of ethics usually consider the needs of the public at large as well as the client, some clients actively oppose an engineer’s efforts to abide by environmental regulations and other public protections.

But the prize goes to the third response I received from a former engineer who is now in academia. Out of several rather hair-raising stories that he sent in, I will summarize just one.

The engineer in question worked for a large firm with overseas customers. One large project originated in the sales department, progressed through sales engineers, applications engineers, and moved on to the regular engineering staff. One of the engineers there noted that there was a paperwork error in the specifications. If the product was made as specified, it would lead to a hazardous situation and it could kill or maim people horribly. Accordingly, the engineer sent back the project and asked for the error to be corrected. The sales people denied the request, not once but several times. After one more try at getting the error corrected, the firm’s client company overseas sent their project manager (essentially a customer of the firm) to the firm’s offices and they held a meeting with him. The client-manager from overseas closed the conference room door and chewed out the engineers up one side and down the other, reminded them that they’d signed a contract, threatened lawsuits, and said either they should build the unsafe product as is or face a “total company shut-down.” I quote from the email: “At one point, the project manager tried to convince us of the trifling nature of the problem since the only people likely to be hurt were third-world village ‘a--holes’ whose widows would get wonderful government pensions if the worst happened.”

It turned out that the reason the overseas project manager was so insistent on keeping the mistake in the plans, was that he was operating under either national or corporate rules in his country which prohibited the alteration of a single project document once bidding was over. If anything was changed, the whole project would have to be rebid, and things would probably get delayed for years.

After much hair-pulling, the firm’s management decided to deliver all the project documentation without the signature of a single engineer. Instead, all the documents came with letters warning that the product was not safe for use unless a simple change was made, and described the change needed to make the project safe. Since the firm itself wasn’t building the product (the overseas client was), technically the firm wouldn’t be liable for injuries to the same degree, but even with all the warnings, the experience left many of the firm’s engineers with sleepless nights.

This story teaches valuable lessons on several levels. For one thing, it shows how cultural differences are an increasing factor in modern engineering work. The cavalier attitude shown by the overseas project manager toward the people likely to be hurt if the product failed was not shared by the U. S. engineers, to say the least. The conflict between sales staff, who wanted simply to get the sale, and engineering staff, who wanted the product to be safe, is a perennial one, but in my experience simply comes with the territory. The way the firm resolved the situation was perhaps one of the least bad solutions, but when a client refuses to accept the best solution and threatens to ruin your firm, sometimes the best solution simply won’t work. One hopes along with the engineers involved that the client firm took the advice and made the added change to improve product safety. But at some level, all such interactions rest on trust, and all the documents in the world will not prevent an unscrupulous contractor or construction worker from doing something wrong.

You can also question the wisdom of a rule that prevents the slightest alteration in documents after the bidding process is over. Some rules are implemented with ulterior motives. In any complex project, certain changes simply come up when on-the-ground reality collides with the engineering paperwork. And reasonable contract rules and laws recognize this fact. In my very limited experience with U. S. construction practices (limited to sitting in on one construction contracting class), an allowance for after-bid changes is made and rules are set up to implement these changes fairly and with adequate notification for all parties involved. I suspect that the overseas law about no changes in the documents after the bid may have been implemented by a government whose friends in high places wanted a loophole through which to funnel business their way. In the event that any documents are changed after a bidding process, this would allow a corrupt government to keep fiddling with the bids until its buddies got the business, while staying within the letter of the law. That is only speculation on my part, but I can’t imagine any other reason for such a rigid and unrealistic rule.

I thank all the readers for sending in their ideas. The National Institute for Engineering Ethics movie project will probably be ongoing for the next several years, so any time you have ideas along these lines, please send them in, either in a comment on the blog or directly to my email at kdstephan(atsign)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Engineering Over Time Through Scientific American

In 1970, when I was 17, my grandmother bought me a gift subscription to Scientific American magazine. This was an act of faith on her part as much as anything else, since I suspect teenage boys were not a big item in the magazine’s marketing strategy. But I’ve been a subscriber ever since. I bring this up because this weekend, I boxed up my backfiles of the magazine, almost 500 issues, and prepared to ship them to an outfit in Georgia which offered me a reasonable price for them. It’s not every day someone offers to pay you to clean out your attic, so that’s what I did. It got me to thinking about science, engineering, and the changing status of both as reflected in a journal which has tried to be to the scientific community of America what The New Yorker tries to be to the nation’s arts-and-letters contingent. Exactly what that is can be debated, but it can be summarized as a prestigious forum for the latest and greatest, presented to readers in the upper strata of its chosen group.

Just to make the comparison more vivid, I will look at two sample issues of the magazine spaced widely in time: the March 1957 issue (a beat-up old thing I obtained under dubious circumstances, which I am not sending to Georgia) and my latest current issue, for January 2011. The only thing that is unquestionably the same in the two issues is the masthead logo or whatever you call it, the words “Scientific American” on the cover. Other than that, the differences are vast.

The major articles in the 1957 issue were about evenly divided between the life sciences and the physical sciences. On the biology side, there were pieces on hormones, a famous physician of antiquity named Galen, and a rare genetic disease called porphyria that a researcher had tracked down to a single prolific South African immigrant. On the physical-science side, the interested reader could learn about current techniques of seawater desalinization, recent findings about the Crab Nebula, and frozen free radicals. There were also a couple of articles on psychological matters. I have lost the cover for this particular issue, but if it was like the others of its time, it featured nothing but the magazine’s name, the date, and a single elegantly prepared artwork illustrating one of the articles, with a short subtitle. That was all.

Turning to January 2011, its cover also is dominated by a single image: the male and female symbols used by doctors, made three-dimensional and assembled in what could be described as a suggestive way. The dominant headline (one of several) reads “The Real Sexual Revolution,” and summarizes an article about the evolutionary development of sex. (In case no one has told you, sex sells, at least with magazines.) Three other headlines describe a few more pieces: one on the physical brain substrate of consciousness, one on the development of new flu strains, and one on robot scientists. There is a dominance of biology and the life sciences over the physical sciences, and this trend continues inside. Of nine feature articles listed in the table of contents, only two pertain primarily to physical science. And even those two deal not so much with physics per se as with technology and society: one speculates on what we’ll do if we actually make contact with an interstellar society, and another discusses energy policy.

Another thing to examine is the advertisements, which say a lot about the clientele a magazine hopes to procure. The 1957 issue is full of ads placed by companies wanting to hire scientists and engineers: places like Avco, Northrop, Boeing, RCA, Bell Labs—really an honor roll of the high-tech sector of that time. A tone of desperation even seeps into some of the ads. Clearly it was a seller’s market then, if you had an advanced technical degree in the physical sciences or engineering. The 2011 issue’s ads are softer and less focused, more institutional than purposeful, and many could (and do) appear in any high-prestige slick magazine these days. I saw no ads offering jobs: those have long since retreated into the specialty professional locations where they are more cost-effective. But if I want to buy some software to teach me Chinese, or take a cruise with like-minded Scientific American readers, or be impressed by the high-tech sector of the Czech Republic (the magazine sells special advertising sections to entire countries from time to time), I will find what I’m looking for in this month’s issue.

Another thing that has changed, and in my opinion not for the better, is that the 1957 issue maintains a highly objective and non-political tone throughout, except in a small section called “Science and the Citizen.” Of course, strict objectivity is an illusion, but like good manners, it can be very convenient to employ nonetheless. When longtime publisher Gerard Piel and editor Dennis Flanagan left the magazine’s helm in 1984 to others, the new crew took on an advocacy role in both editor-authored statements and in their choice of articles. In their selection of columnists and direct editorials, the magazine now has an obvious anti-supernatural bias which was hard to detect in its earlier incarnations.

What has all this got to do with engineering, let alone engineering ethics? For one thing, it says engineering is a much more diverse field now than it was in 1957. Back then, an advertiser stood a good chance of addressing the small pool of high-tech American professionals through the pages of a single magazine. Nowadays everything is a lot more complicated: science and technology in general, and the process of finding people who can do what you want, in particular. This little comparison also shows how the physical sciences (and technology based exclusively on them) have shrunk in relative prestige compared to the life sciences. What this means for engineering is not exactly clear, except that engineers themselves must pay more attention to life science than ever before. This explains the growth in programs such as biomedical engineering, and says that too much specialization of any kind may not be a good idea in today’s rapidly changing world.

NOTE on the Readers’ Poll: Last week I asked for suggestions on themes for a new engineering ethics video I will have the opportunity to contribute to. The response was not exactly overwhelming (I think I got two so far), so if you have any ideas along these lines, please see last week’s blog and pass them along. In any event, I will discuss these next week.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reader’s Poll: Topics for Planned Engineering Ethics Video Wanted

Here’s where I give my readers (both of you!) a chance to participate in an ongoing project that should result in a new video drama for use in teaching engineering ethics at the college level. Over the last two decades, an organization called the National Institute for Engineering Ethics has sponsored the production of three video dramas designed to highlight ethical issues in engineering. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NIEE board of directors.) These videos have been shown in hundreds of engineering ethics classes over the years, and serve as a springboard for discussion of a wide variety of ethical issues and dilemmas that practicing engineers can encounter on the job.

The three videos are Gilbane Gold (1989), Incident at Morales (2003), and Henry’s Daughters (2010). They are all about a half hour long, with lots of supplementary material for classroom discussions and ethics exercises. (For more information about these videos, see the reference to NIEE in the Sources section below.) If you’ve graduated in the last fifteen years or so from an engineering school which happens to use them, you may have even seen one. If you remember seeing it and it made any kind of impression on you, I’d love to hear from you about it.

But that’s not the main reason for this poll. Many aspects of engineering ethics are perennial, in the sense that human nature doesn’t change that fast and certain kinds of issues keep coming up decade after decade. So to the extent possible, the NIEE tries to address issues in these videos that share that timelessness to insure their wide and continuing usefulness. However, in the nature of things, a video starts to look dated after a while because of hairstyles, dress, vehicles, and even things like the demise of big boxy computer monitors, which happened around the time Incident at Morales was released. So the folks at NIEE are in the early stages of developing the next project, and I would like your help. (By the way, this poll is something I’m doing strictly on my own initiative, and is not an official NIEE activity).

The question I’d like you to address is this: what engineering ethics problems or issues are you either facing right now, or think you’ll be facing in the near future? This is not mainly a technology question, although new technologies can be a part of the answer. What I’m looking for is situations, dilemmas, and types of ethical problems that you have either already encountered on the job, or know about someone else who has run into them. Just to give you an idea of what kinds of things the NIEE videos have dealt with in the past, here are quickie summaries of each one, from the NIEE website:

Gilbane Gold: Gilbane Gold is the name given to dried sludge from the city of Gilbane wastewater treatment plant. It is sold to farmers as a commercial fertilizer. The annual revenue generated saves the average family about $300 per year in taxes. Z CORP, a computer components manufacturer, discharges wastewater containing small amounts of lead and arsenic into the city sewers. By current city test standards, the discharge meets allowable levels. Z CORP environmental engineers know of a newer test which shows that the discharge may still meet the letter of the law, but exceeds the spirit of the law. Protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public is a concern.

Incident at Morales: Phaust Chemical manufactures Old Stripper, a paint remover that dominates the market. On learning that Phaust’s competitor Chemitoil plans to introduce a new paint remover that may capture the market, executives at Phaust decide to develop a competing product. To save money in manufacturing the product, Phaust decides to construct a new chemical plant in Mexico. To design the new plant, Phaust hires a chemical engineer, Fred Martinez, who had been a consultant to Chemitoil. Fred confronts several engineering decisions in which ethical considerations play a major role. . . . When samples of Chemitoil’s new paint remover EasyStrip become available, it is clear that to be competitive with EasyStrip, Phaust must change the formulation of its new paint remover, requiring higher temperatures and pressures than originally anticipated. These increases in temperatures and pressures cause significant technical and ethical problems, the most serious of which is the fact that the automatic controls no longer work as intended. Thus, the plant manager, Manuel, volunteers to control the process manually. After the plant goes into full operation, an unfortunate accident occurs, resulting in serious consequences. (Spoiler Alert: Namely, Manuel gets killed.)

Henry’s Daughters: Henry is a retired but still well-connected automobile executive and lobbyist. GUIDEME, a client of Henry’s, is involved in an academia-industry-Department of Transportation smart highway design competition called SANSHANDS. The project goal is to develop specifications for automated highways and car control systems so that people won’t have to drive anymore. Laura, Henry’s oldest daughter, is a professional engineer who works at the Department of Transportation. She is the project manager, and responsible for compiling and recommending the specifications for the computer control system. Julie is Henry’s younger daughter. With her father’s finagling, she is an intern with OUTOCAR, a local start-up company recently founded by state university engineers in partnership with the University’s Business Incubator. OUTOCAR is competing with GUIDEME to take the design of SANSHANDS to the next level. The story intertwines the lives of both young women and their father. They are excited to be involved with a project that will impact the future of transportation. While most of their discussions focus on technical and personal challenges, sometimes they unintentionally cross the ethical line by letting proprietary information slip out. Ultimately, Laura’s team recommends OUTOCAR but the final award goes to GUIDEME. OUTOCAR personnel allege that ethical misconduct and possible criminal violations occurred during the project. Consequently, the state senate ethics commission holds a hearing and calls Laura and Henry to testify.

. . . So by now you have an idea of the kinds of things these videos deal with. I’m not looking for complete detailed story ideas at this point. It’s too early in the process for that. Instead, I’m interested in situations and issues (preferably from someone’s real experience) that you think would be helpful to discuss in a college engineering ethics course.

How should you respond? The best way would be to make a comment in the comment section of this blog. That way everybody can see what your idea is right away, including me. The other option is to email me directly ( with your suggestion. I will compile whatever responses I receive in the next week or two and discuss them in an upcoming blog post.

Of course, I cannot make any assurances that what you suggest (or even what I suggest) will make it into the next video, which probably won’t be produced for several more years. But I’d like to give you a chance to contribute your ideas to what we hope will be a helpful and productive educational tool for engineering ethics classes.

Sources: Since the videos are designed for institutional use, they are a little pricey to buy on an individual basis. But you can read descriptions and see more material on them at the NIEE website And since every engineering dean in the U. S. should have received a free copy of Henry’s Daughters in the last year or so, if you want to borrow it you could ask around at the dean’s office.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Ultimate Cancer Detection Technology: Blessing or Curse?

At least in industrialized countries, the two major causes of death are heart disease and some form of cancer. I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose my poison, I’d prefer heart disease, because cancer is so slow, insidious, and creepy. Besides, my wife is a breast cancer survivor ( and both my parents died of cancer. So when I heard about a research team at Massachusetts General Hospital that has moved a blood-test machine for cancer cells closer to commercialization, I had mixed feelings.

So far, the device is apparently intended only to monitor the condition of patients who are already known to have cancer. It consists of a credit-card-size plate covered with thousands of tiny posts, each one of which has a different kind of molecule that binds to proteins on a specific type of cancer cell. When blood flows over the posts, very small concentrations of cancer cells leave traces on the posts, and you get a number saying how many of what kind of cell is present in the blood. The hope is that this kind of test can supplement or even replace the expensive MRI or CT scans usually employed to monitor progress of chemotherapy by observing the size of macroscopic tumors. Of course, there are many potholes in the road to commercial use, but the researchers have my best wishes for success. I think.

Let’s extrapolate this kind of technology to its ultimate limit. We are told that everybody has some cells that are, if not out-and-out malignant, then highly inclined to develop into cancer. But in healthy people, the immune system is on the lookout for such misbehaviors as a liver cell setting up shop in your biceps muscle, and takes care of misbehaving cells by attacking them as though they were foreign invaders like bacteria. Cancer is not so much the mere occurrence of malignant cells as it is their successful multiplication into a colony whose numbers and size overwhelm the body’s defenses.

So what if we had a blood test for any kind of cancer cell, down to the concentrations that exist in healthy people? Would that be a good thing?

On the face of it, yes. I suppose you could establish some kind of baseline limit as we have done for serum cholesterol. Below the limit you’d be told you were healthy and above the limit, well, you’d be worried, at least. We’d have to go through clinical trials to see what kind of numbers are associated with cancers that are worth fighting. We are already in this situation with regard to the protein-specific antigen (PSA) for prostate cancer. There is a simple blood test that tells you your PSA level, but it turns out that PSA is not an infallible signal that tells you either (a) you’ve got nothing to worry about or (b) make sure your will is in order and you’ve picked out the music you want for your funeral. And even people who have genuine prostate cancer, depending on their age, are sometimes told that not treating it is an option because treatment can sometimes be worse than the disease. But it’s hard to tell when that’s the case.

If we are so tangled in ambiguities about as simple a thing as the PSA test for prostate cancer, imagine what it would be like if we had a blood test, even a reliable one, for most of the common dangerous cancers such as those of the lung, breast, colon, skin (including melanoma), and so on. On the one hand, it’d be nice not to undergo chest X-rays, mammograms, and colonoscopies and instead just provide a blood sample. But on the other hand, I’m sure we would face a world of difficult decisions that would be highly biased by the economics of cancer treatment. When you add the current U. S. health-care law (and its future fate) to the mix, you get quite a brew that could raise as many problems and issues as it solves.

Does this mean we should stop such research? I don’t think so. Knowledge as such, including knowledge of one’s physical condition, is of value, but only if we also consider the context in which such knowledge will be used. It does no good to come up with a cheap test for cancer if we do not also use that new knowledge to work on better and less debilitating treatments that take advantage of the early notice that such a test would give. Otherwise you move toward the ultimate nightmare (which fortunately will never come to pass) of knowing at the outset that for example you, a 23-year-old man, will die at the age of 46 of thus-and-such disease, but there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

My metaphorical hat is off to the MGH researchers, and I hope they succeed in at least their immediate goals of developing better ways of monitoring the progress of cancer treatment. As to the ultimate cancer blood test, if it ever comes to pass, let’s just hope that by then we have come up with a wise way to use it for the benefit of patients as well as the medical industry.

Sources: MIT’s online version of Technology Review carried an article about the MGH research on Jan. 3, 2011 at

Monday, January 03, 2011

Does Improving Efficiency Really Save Energy?

You might almost say that what health is to doctors or justice is to lawyers, efficiency is to engineers. Making machines more efficient summarizes a good bit of everything that has gone on in technology and engineering over the last couple of hundred years or so. And if you broaden the definition of efficiency to include useful (or desirable) work performed per unit cost (and not just per unit of raw energy input), then everything from airplanes to zippers has gotten more efficient over the years. Increased efficiency in energy-consuming products has been viewed as the no-brainer answer to the problem of rising energy demands around the globe. Instead of building more coal-fired power plants, conservationists say, just replace X million incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, and you’ve save tons of carbon at virtually no infrastructure cost. This is all very well, but a recent article in The New Yorker calls into question the universally accepted idea that increasing energy efficiency truly leads to less energy consumed.

A nineteenth-century economist named William Stanley Jevons was among the first to point out that improved energy efficiency in manufacturing iron, for example (Jevons’ father was an iron merchant) doesn’t necessarily mean that you will end up using less coal to make iron in the long run. What can happen, especially when the cost of energy is a large portion of the finished product cost, is that when the price goes down due to smaller energy usage, people start using more iron—so much more, in fact, that even with more energy-efficient production, the total amount of iron sold is so much larger that the industry as a whole ends up consuming more energy than before, not less.

Jevons’ idea obviously applies to a lot of things besides iron. Take computers, for example. The first electronic computer occupied a room the size of a small house and consumed about 150 kilowatts of power. Its computing ability was much less than what a tiny 8-pin embedded microprocessor can do today. On a strict efficiency basis, measured by almost any yardstick—energy consumption, cost, space, weight—today’s microprocessor is thousands or millions of times more efficient. But guess what? In 1946 there was exactly one electronic computer of the type I’m describing (ENIAC, installed at the U. S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground), and today there are many millions of computers of all sizes, plus giant server farms that tax the power-generating capability of the entire power grid of the Northwest U. S. The total amount of electricity devoted to electronic computing has gone from 150 kW in 1946 to many gigawatts today, if you count all the mobile phones on batteries, the computerized cash registers, and so on.

So what’s an engineer to do? Give up on making things more efficient because people will only use more of them? This is a great example of a case where doing the right thing in a micro-environment (a single company or even industry) may lead to complicated consequences in a macro-environment such as the economy of a country or even the globe. In fact, it goes to the heart of what engineering is all about, and makes one face the question of how to justify energy consumption on a fundamental level.

While this blog is not about global warming, there are those who believe that radical reductions in the world’s carbon footprint are imperative if we are to avoid a gigantic creeping disaster that will flood most of the world’s coastal cities, which means, more or less, many of the world’s cultural and political capitals. Oh, and by the way, millions will die prematurely. Although I do not happen to agree with this premise, let’s grant it for the sake of argument. Given an immediate need to reduce energy consumption by a large fraction, what should we do? Make everything that uses energy more efficient? Jevons’ idea says this simply won’t work. In the broad definition of efficiency we’ve been using, improving efficiency often leads to more energy use, not less.

The unpleasant alternative to what looked like a win-win solution—improved energy efficiency and less energy usage—is some form of rationing: either energy taxes, or simple flat-out restrictions on energy use. Many countries practice this already: it’s called power outages. Power is on only at night, or three hours a day, or not for weeks at a time. It’s arbitrary, unfair, and hits the poorest hardest, but it works. The tax alternative has the advantage that it provides some economic incentive for improving efficiency—but if technology really improves to the point that the tax is compensated for, you’re right back where you started. The only sure-fire way to keep people from using energy as much as they want is to put them under the government’s thumb somehow. Cuba, I understand, has raised this process to an art form—if you consider old cars towed by mules artistic.

Don’t get the idea I think efficiency is bad. If I did, I couldn’t very well call myself an engineer. However, Jevons reminds us that, like many other things in life, energy efficiency can be helpful in limited circumstances. But expecting it to solve all the world’s energy problems is not only unrealistic, but probably counterproductive as well.

Sources: David Owen’s article “The Efficiency Dilemma” appeared in the Dec. 20 & 27, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, pp. 78-85.