Web Resources for Engineering Ethics

Ethics, like all other areas of philosophy, can be perplexing. It requires much research and discussion. Fortunately, the Internet is proving to be a valuable tool that enables design professionals to join the engineering community's discourse on professional ethics.There are seldom easy answers to ethical questions.

By Scott Siddens, Senior Editor October 1, 2001

Ethics, like all other areas of philosophy, can be perplexing. It requires much research and discussion. Fortunately, the Internet is proving to be a valuable tool that enables design professionals to join the engineering community’s discourse on professional ethics.

There are seldom easy answers to ethical questions. Formally defined standards of moral conduct can sound straightforward. For example, all engineers would agree that one of their primary obligations is protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public. But defining a code of ethics is one thing; applying it to real-life situations is something quite different.

What makes the Internet so valuable in this regard is not only easy access to a code of ethics or standards of conduct, but also ongoing discussion and presentation of test cases—both real and hypothetical—that demonstrate the difficulty of translating normative ethical standards into moral conduct.

First Stop: NSPE

One of the first places to visit is the National Society of Professional Engineer’s web site (www.nspe.org), which has a very extensive area devoted to professional ethics. One resource is the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, some 1,800 words defining the basic tenets of the organization’s standard of conduct.

The ethics section of the web site isn’t just dry reading. One particular item of interest is a true-false on-line exam. The 25-question exam on this web site ( www.nspe.org/ethics/eh1-test.asp ) tests an engineer’s knowledge of NSPE’s code of ethics. Even though it is only a test of specific language in the NSPE code, it serves as a good starting point for understanding the basic issues.

An interesting side note is that NSPE sponsors an annual ethics competition for its individual members, chapters and student chapters. Participants are challenged to analyze real-life situations. It may involve an ethical dilemma such as breach of confidentiality or conflict of interest, but no matter the specific challenge, developing discussion and conclusions takes time and thought.

NSPE’s emphasis on ethics is evident in some of the contentious discussions that have surfaced on the site regarding proposed new model laws for engineer licensure. There has been considerable discussion of proposed changes to the P.E. exam. Critics charge that the new model focuses more on codes, standards, ethics and professional practice issues, rather than testing engineers in specific areas of technical expertise.

Proponents of the new model argue that ethics must be emphasized because state licensing boards are much more likely to struggle with problems in the area of ethics, not technical matters. Engineers are increasingly being called upon to exercise critical judgment vis-à-vis public health and safety.

For continuing research on engineering ethics, the NSPE web site offers many important links to courses, study guides, reference books and videos—even software and games—that pertain to professional ethics for engineers. Also, it provides valuable links to other ethics-related web sites.

Playing the links

One such link is www.onlineethics.org . While it does occasionally sponsor conferences in person, the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science exists primarily in cyberspace, providing access to literature, case studies, references and discussion groups on ethics in engineering and science.

The web site is a rich source of case studies—many of them drawn from incidents that have come before NSPE’s Board of Review—that provide valuable analysis and commentary on the issues involved.

For engineers looking for answers to particular issues, the Online Ethics Center has a help line. An engineer can send an e-mail describing an ethics problem, and the message is routed to an appropriate party, who tries to respond within three days. Those responding are reported to be experienced ethicists, engineers and scientists.

One must keep in mind, however, that like any help line, it’s just one source of advice. An ethical sticky wicket isn’t easily negotiated. As is the case in seeking legal advice, a question of ethics can draw numerous, even contradictory responses.

The Online Ethics Center’s help line is cosponsored by the National Institute for Engineering Ethics (NIEE), based in Lubbock, Texas. The web address is www.niee.org .

NIEE was founded in 1988 by the NSPE but became an independent non-profit entity in 1995. The organization has worked to become a liaison promoting engineering ethics among many separate disciplines.

Among NIEE’s many achievements is the development of Gilbane Gold: A Case Study in Engineering Ethics, a video and study guide that describes the ethical dilemma of a young P.E. whose firm is releasing toxic materials into a city sewage system. Gilbane Gold is used to teach ethics in many engineering schools and for industry presentations.

The NIEE web site is a useful source of information. Like the NSPE site, it includes many valuable links for obtaining resources, as well as links to other ethics-related web sites for engineers. The NIEE site does, however, tend to offer a lot of the same information that one finds on the NSPE site.

Education connection

For engineers engaged in or contemplating work overseas, both the www.ethicsonline.org and www.niee.org web sites have areas where ethical issues in international work are addressed. The NIEE site, for example, currently presents a section titled “Principles of Ethical Conduct in Engineering Practice Under the North American Free Trade Agreement,” which is actually a link to the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism ( www.murdough.ttu.edu ) at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Web sites set up by university engineering programs are a good source of information on engineering ethics. Almost all describe the professional ethics course that are part of their curriculum, and many offer continuing education course information and on-line forums, excellent opportunities not only for students to learn about engineering ethics, but also for practicing engineers who are looking to join in discussions of ethical issues.

University web sites also offer hundreds of discussion case studies. The College of Engineering at the University of Washington, for example, has created the Applied Ethics Case of the Month Club ( www.engr.washington.edu ). The purpose of the club is to take complex ethical theories, which are often expressed in the arcane terminology of philosophy, and translate them into something that a student can relate to the situations that he or she may someday encounter in real-life engineering.

A new applied ethics case study is posted bi-monthly, taken from an actual experience and presented in narrative form. The participants’ names and locations are altered to protect their identities and are kept confidential by the club, which encourages contribution of possible cases from a variety of professional disciplines in order to guarantee a variety of interesting cases.

Ethical degeneration?

One often hears laments about the weakening of ethical norms of the professions. What seems more likely is that, at least for engineers, the ever changing nature of engineered systems and evolving systems of project delivery often make moral choices more difficult to define—or even recognize— when issues of professional ethics arise. Engineering professionals, who spend a considerable amount of time keeping abreast of rapidly evolving technologies, must also find time to ponder possible ethical issues.

Spanning the Divide: Engineers and Cost Estimating

With design-build and other types of alternative project delivery methods on the rise, consulting engineers are discovering that there is much to learn—and to gain—through close collaboration with contracting firms.

One particular skill that contractors bring to a partnering relationship is conceptual estimating. Construction cost estimating is often described as being as much an art as a science. Nowhere is this statement more true than in conceptual estimating, which typically takes place during the design phase of a project, sometimes when the engineering design is no more than rough sketches—or even before.

While conceptual estimating is currently a hot topic, largely because of the popularity of fast-track project delivery, it has been in use for decades. In its Standard Estimating Practice, now in its 5

Pre-design estimate. On a traditional design-bid-build project, this type of estimate provides approximate values for design work packages to be awarded to A/E firms selected by the owner. At this stage of the process, there is not much design information available, so the contingency percentage is usually 30% to 50%.

Conceptual estimate. For this level of estimating, the estimator has been supplied with sketches. These “drawings,” in conjunction with discussions and meetings with the owner’s representatives and the A/E, form the estimate outline for costing. The estimator formulates a list of pay items. These items have total unit costs applied to them. The conceptual estimate normally becomes the estimate that all other “working” estimates are compared with for design, scope and cost changes—and carries a contingency percentage of 30%.

Design professionals have always engaged in some sort of conceptual estimating, albeit without the formal training of a professional estimator. On design-build projects, where the consulting engineers and construction cost estimators are in much closer collaboration, each of these parties is gaining a better understanding of each other’s responsibilities and needs.

Especially in the areas of mechanical and electrical systems design, which can account for 30% to 60% of building costs, the need for this team effort is evident. It has been all too common under traditional design-bid-build contracts for consulting engineers to see their M/E/P designs undermined by value engineering down the road in later project phases. With alternative forms of project delivery, however, they begin working hand in hand with construction cost estimators, while designs are still at an early conceptual stage.

Engineering firms that specialize in design-build are now employing estimators for this type of cost modeling and sending employees for formal training in construction cost estimating.

In the past, some M/E/P design professionals have shied away from cost estimating, fearing that it would limit their creativity on build system design. With a greater reliance on design-build project delivery, however, many are discovering that greater knowledge of and experience with cost estimating—traditionally the reserve of the contractor—can ensure that their systems will be built as they were designed.