The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges are critiqued by Dr. Erin Cech for what she describes as a double standard in engineering. Though Cech rightly discusses a lack of accountability and acknowledgement within the profession, her argument lacks nuance. The Grand Challenges were ultimately a promotional tool meant to inspire the next generation of engineers, yet Cech holds them to a standard of being professional rules and guidelines. This paper will discuss the distinctions that Cech’s argument lacks, including placing an unreasonable amount of responsibility on engineers and overstating their influence.
While the feats of engineering outlined in the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Grand Challenges serve to posture innovators as key problem-solvers, Dr. Erin Cech argues that engineers are given undue credit as saviors without being held accountable for the negative side effects of their work . The Grand Challenges aim to inspire the nation’s most talented engineers to pursue solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, but Cech considers this attempt to paint engineering in a positive light a harmful double standard. Considering technology’s massive impact on society, Cech finds this comparison of engineers to responsibility-free heroes a dangerous one due to a lack of accountability, arguing that the NAE has a responsibility to hold engineers accountable for their impact, intentional or not.
Cech’s double standard argument fails to empathize with the NAE’s goal to inspire, overstates the control engineers have, and focuses on consequences over duty or intention. There is no question that the Grand Challenges (GCs) actively paint engineers in a positive light by encouraging them to solve society’s biggest problems. However, neglecting to acknowledge the objective of the GCs allows Cech to mischaracterize their purpose. The NAE meant for the GCs to invigorate the engineers of today to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Cech’s critiques, however, focus on tangible consequences rather than that emotional uplift. In addition, Cech suggests that engineers should be held responsible for engineering-related failures but fails to consider forces outside of an engineer’s control. Such heavy responsibility could ultimately stunt potentially world-changing advancements.
Though not all Cech’s points are sound, her suggestion that there is “no acknowledgment of the contributions of engineering design to the existence of these challenges” is accurate. The NAE does not once mention engineers’ contributions to the problems that they are hoping to solve . In addition, the negative effects of technological progress cited by the GCs are evident: climate engineering effects have negatively impacted humanity overall , and cybersecurity and nuclear terrorism spawning from technological advancements present themselves daily on a global scale. Cech insinuates that the NAE is shirking its duty to place responsibility on engineers for the negative consequences of their work, regardless of intention, and act to solve them. Cech’s argument that negative consequences need to be considered when innovating is a prescient warning that is empirically supported , but arbitrarily avoiding negative impacts may place undue responsibility on innovators thereby limiting their innovations.
Cech’s argument would be strengthened by considering both the intentions of the NAE and an engineer’s inability to predict unforeseen consequences. Cech’s interpretation of the GCs depicts them as the sole source of information by which engineers should abide. The National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics for Engineers cites that “engineers shall acknowledge their errors,” demonstrating the presence of other sources that focus on ethics . This suggests that it is not solely the responsibility of the GCs to lay out an ethical code. Since the NAE’s intentions for the GCs are to promote the positive potential of engineering, the very basis for much of Cech’s argument is due to a misinterpretation of their purpose.
Cech suggests that intentionality is a simple solution to avoiding future engineering-related complications. However, most negative engineering outcomes have arisen accidentally, regardless of intention. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor was created to produce energy more sustainably, but it ended up creating decades of radioactivity that still plagues the area . Placing the responsibility on engineers to worry about unintended consequences is unfeasible. Predicting the outcomes of cutting-edge science and technology is too difficult, so to avoid unforeseen consequences, the alternative would be to avoid technological progress. However, some consideration of engineering outcomes may reduce the dangers of over-innovation. An example of the dangerous effects of engineering overreach is Facebook’s influence in politics and human emotion. In a heated letter to the public, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg retaliated against journalists claiming that Facebook “prioritizes profit over safety and well-being.” Zuckerburg argued that since children already use technology, Facebook doesn’t have the responsibility to stop them from doing so excessively, even going so far as to shift the blame onto mainstream media . This kind of rhetoric is dangerous to the public and supports Cech’s point that engineers have too much influence over society.
The Manhattan Project and its contribution to nuclear terrorism is a valid example that Cech gives regarding the negative side effects of technological progress. However, solely pointing the finger at engineers for these developments may be misdirecting the blame. For example, Cech attributes the threat of biological weaponry as something “designed by engineers in … laboratories” rather than being a result of tensions among international governments . The NAE specifically addresses this point, stating that “governmental and institutional, political and economic, and personal and social barriers will repeatedly arise to impede the pursuit of solutions to problems” . The argument that engineers have directly created these issues does not consider the decision-makers. If an engineer is tasked with creating an alternative power source which is then misused by the government as a weapon, the fault does not necessarily belong to the engineer for creating the technology. Scientists and engineers are not typically in control of how their technologies will be used. Therefore, it is unfair to place the blame on the people who create the technology rather than on those who use it maliciously. The GCs are meant for aspirational innovators who want to save the world. So, even if a malicious engineer were to decide how their technology would be used, this person would likely disregard the GCs. Cech’s suggestion that the NAE is responsible for creating guidelines for malicious engineers is beyond the scope of their purpose.
The general argument Cech makes against the GCs requires a more nuanced approach. The assertion that the GCs promote an engineering double standard fails to consider their intended use as a promotional tool rather than a code of ethics. Calling for more responsibility to be placed on engineers to limit unforeseen consequences ignores engineers’ position as innovators rather than decision-makers. However, her critiques should not be dismissed overall. As demonstrated by the influence Facebook has on society, neglecting to hold engineers accountable for the sake of technological progress might be a slippery slope and may facilitate that progress for its own sake. Nuclear spills, climate change, and cyber-terrorism are examples of how this mentality has the potential to lead to negative impacts that affect humanity for several generations. Instead of claiming that the NAE has failed to accomplish their purpose, focusing on a middle ground wherein engineers are encouraged to both acknowledge the consequences of their work and strive to create technological advances is the ideal goal to work towards.
By Shub Gaur, Marshall School of Business, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Shub was a Business Administration minoring in Computer Programming. He loves startups and spends his free time nerding out about consumer technology and playing volleyball.
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Links for Further Reading