We tend to speak about the power of chemical engineers managing resources and technology in our age, yet the discussion is not complete without mentioning chemical engineering ethics. After all, although we would like to think of ourselves as modern day superheroes, "with great power comes great responsibility" as Uncle Ben told Spiderman.
The recent VW scandal among many things, brought into discussion engineering ethics. As the executives of the company put the blame on the software engineers, engineering came into spotlight as power that can easily be used to serve the dark side. Being highly involved in industries such as energy, petroleum, pharmaceuticals and food which all have high impacts on the society, chemical engineers are always under the spotlight with their engineering decisions. It is important to keep these industries up to the common good while struggling with political and monetary concerns of the authorities. In this sense, the engineering ethics seldom has to do with application of technology, and often has to do with communication, decision-making mechanisms and conflicts around politics, time and money.
The first part of the chemical engineering ethics can be described as an engineer's responsibility for doing a good job. The ethical norms for this part include providing safe and reliable products, confidentiality, avoiding conflicts for interest and keeping the professionalism in general.
However we look at the chemical engineering ethics from a broader point of view, a chemical engineer has to do a good job in the focus of human life, working for the benefit of the human life in addition to the benefit of the company s/he is working for. The chemical engineer should not lose her/his ties to the community and the environment.
The underlying issues of the engineering mistakes are often results of ignoring the common sense. And although the application of technology is usually not the problem, it should be stated that as the fields of chemical engineering continue to expand, the rules around chemical engineering ethics are not clearly laid out for these areas. In addition to not knowing the ethically correct solution, the problems that may cause ethical dilemmas are also not clear.
Trying to make the right decision for the society and doing a good job while working in the industry is not the only way for a chemical engineer to use her/his skills for the common good. There is so much that can be done to bring efficient solutions to the regions of the world struggling with water and energy issues towards a sustainable community development. One international organization that is bringing together engineering skills with global projects is "Engineers Without Borders". With regional offices all around the world, Engineers Without Borders organizes projects for alternative energy, distribution and sanitation of water, sanitation and health, agriculture and food security, education and empowerment and shelter. In addition to on site applications of engineering solutions in developing countries, research projects are also carried out in order to come up with more efficient solutions.
Chemical engineers have much to offer for organizations carrying out projects for these purposes, due to the intersecting fields of interest. Also engineers themselves can profit from the experience, while “learning through service” and enriching their technical skills with leadership, project management, communication, cultural awareness and understanding.
You can read more about the Ethics code of AIChE and several engineering cases here. You can also find another article about applying chemical engineering for humanitarian purposes and read about two real life projects here. If you are interested in Engineers Without Borders, you can find the organization active in your region listed here.
27 October 2015