“Fundamental Canon No. 1” of the American Society of Engineers states that “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Most engineering societies have this principle in their codes of ethics. This duty frames the decades of struggles by conscientious engineers—whether employees or consultants—who strive to balance professional ethics with occupational survival.
Compared to the technologically stagnant dark days in the auto industry of cruel suppression of technical dissent over safety and toxic emissions, a censorship that carried over to the industry-controlled Society of Automotive Engineers, today’s engineers are working in an improved environment for taking their conscience to work. Yet much more remains to be done to safeguard the ability of engineers to speak truth to the powers-that-be.
For starters, the word whistleblower—once popularly meant to describe a snitch or a disgruntled employee—now describes an ethical person willing to put his or her job on the line in order to expose corrupt, illegal, fraudulent and harmful activities. Indeed, in the aftermath of recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes, the media routinely and positively refers to disclosures by “Boeing whistleblowers.” Congressional investigating committees and federal agencies have called for whistleblowers to come forward and shed light on corporate misdeeds and governmental agency lapses.
To put it mildly, this was not always the case. In 1971, I convened the Conference on Professional Responsibility—a sober name for a group of whistleblowers from corporations, government and unions. They were ragged as “malcontents” or “occupational-suiciders.” In fact, they were courageous, accurate, morally right, and willing to lose everything to expose wrongdoing.
Keynoters at the whistleblower conference were Senator William Proxmire, who protected government whistleblowers on military defense issues, and Robert Townsend, author of the best-selling Up the Organization. Townsend drew from his business experience to explain the critical role whistleblowing could play in giant corporations. Law Professor Arthur Miller reviewed the lack of legal protection and vulnerability of whistleblowers and presented what the law should provide “in its institutions and principles.” (See Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility, by Ralph Nader, Peter Petkas and Kate Blackwell, 1972).
After this watershed conference, much began to change. Numerous health and safety statutes now protect government employees who report noncompliance with environmental, worker safety and labor standards. Starting in 1978, a Merit System Protection Board was established and later strengthened under President George Herbert Walker Bush to give federal employees some, but not enough, due process against retaliation. Several states followed with their own whistleblower protections.
In 1977 an NGO called the Government Accountability Project (GAP) started offering pro bono representation to many government and corporate whistleblowers. After the enactment of the 1986 False Claims Act, federal employees exposing fraud against the government were able to secure a sizable portion of any resultant verdict or settlement against those ripping off the taxpayers. This law alone has recovered over $60 billion from the fraudsters. Private law firms and the Justice Department are regularly involved in pursuing these claims.
The vast world of state and federal procurement/military contracts and infrastructure is known to be rife with “waste, fraud and abuse.” Engineers are most likely to see such violations first. Decades ago, foreshadowing the many challenges in engineering, the Society of Professional Engineers, in its code of ethics, instructed engineers on their obligation to report safety and fraud violations to the appropriate outside authorities, should they find no recourse inside their place of employment.
With $5 trillion of deferred maintenance for our public works, as measured by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the challenges to the assertion of engineering conscientiousness will be ever larger.
We need more public interest engineering advocacy groups and initiatives to open up new frontiers of excellence and service as well as to support engineers inside the corporate framework. It was a Caltech professor, Arie Jan Haagen-Smit, not GM engineers or chemists, who proved in the 1950s the connection between motor vehicles and the lethal photochemical smog over the cities and suburbs of California. This led to smog-control regulations and ethical and legal foundations for industrial air pollution controls.
Engineer Ralf Hotchkiss, rendered a paraplegic before college, courageously revolutionized the functional and economical design of superior wheelchairs, including showing natives how to utilize local materials in poor countries. He also helped break the virtual wheelchair monopoly of a British multinational company in the process. We need more engineers who embody the three principles of any profession—independence, scholarly pursuits, and commitment to public service. Those are the vital ethical pillars to helping engineers withstand the great pressures to place commercial priorities over their engineering integrity and limit harm to the public. We see the push to relegate engineers to indentured status in industries such as the chemical, nuclear, weapons systems, mining, auto, aviation, railroad and medical devices industries, as well as the new unregulated areas of biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.
There has been progress in legal protections for whistleblowers, more civil litigations and, importantly, higher public expectations and popular support for these unsung protectors. There is, however, much more work to do, especially in educating the engineering school curricula and encouraging the numerous engineering societies to take their codes of ethics seriously. But as Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has written, “Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around.”
In 1966, in an address to a chapter of the American Society of Engineering Education (reprinted in the new book Ethics, Politics, and Whistleblowing in Engineering, by Nicholas Sakellariou and Rania Milleron [my niece], CRC Press), I said “the [engineering] profession must assert itself towards its most magnificent aspirations—for so much of our future is in your trust.”
Well, isn’t that a great understatement today!?