UK engineering community urged to “Think ethics before action” in new pan-profession engineering ethics report

Make sure to download your free copy of the Engineering Ethics report
Make sure to download your free copy of the Engineering Ethics report

A new report, Engineering Ethics: maintaining society’s trust in the engineering profession, has been published to ensure that ethical culture and practice become embedded in the engineering profession in the same way as health and safety considerations. The report has been produced by the joint Engineering Ethics Reference Group, established in 2019 by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council, and includes a roadmap of short, medium and long-term actions to embed ethical best practice. At the heart of the report is the need to retain public confidence in the ethical behaviour of engineers.

While reported public trust in engineers remains high, the ever-growing expectations of society coupled with new advances in technology mean that engineers must continually evaluate how ethical behaviours need to improve and evolve. Inevitably, there are tensions between profitability, sustainability and safety that engineers seek to be aware of and need to balance.

The engineering profession has been working for many years on embedding ethical culture and practice into the profession, including operating sustainably, inclusively and with respect for diverse views. Together, such behaviours make a profession aspirational and trustworthy but require a culture of continuous improvement.

Engineering Ethics marks the next step in this work, summarising progress so far and recommending actions that reinforce benefit to society while seeking to embed an ethical culture of continuous improvement. The report encourages all engineering organisations and employers to consider what they should be doing to embed ethical thinking more strongly in all that we do.

Professor David Bogle FIChemE FREng, Chair of the Engineering Ethics Reference Group, said: “Engineers act in the service of society, making decisions that affect everyone, from small-scale technical choices to major strategic decisions that can affect the lives of millions and even the future of our planet. We want to make sure that ethical practice is at the heart of all these decisions.

“Our vision is that UK engineering ethics principles and practice are regarded nationally and internationally as world-class, with ethics embedded in engineering culture such that society can maintain confidence and trust in the profession.

“Realising this goal will require collaborative action and shared responsibility. But this is essential if we are to retain public trust and attract young people into the profession who truly reflect the diversity of society and who will help achieve a sustainable society and inclusive economy that works for everyone.”

The actions suggested by the report are grouped under five themes and are all drawn from feedback from the profession, with the aim of fostering a culture of ethical debate and accountability. They will increase awareness of ethical issues within the engineering profession and improve engineers’ ability to both deal with, and call out, bad practices.

The themes are:

Leadership and accountability

Maintain position and recognition as leaders in driving ethical standards and practice forwards, where leadership means encouraging behaviours that can be practiced across all levels of the engineering profession, not just by senior members.

Education and training

Support and maintain a consistent and coherent approach (across HE/FE/CPD) to improve the quality of how ethics is understood by those in the engineering profession.

Professionalism

Engage with the profession to maximise adoption of professional values, ethics and practice. Encourage engineers to ‘Think ethics before action’. Maximise the number of professionally registered individuals in the engineering community to uphold ethical practice and increase the accountability of individuals against ethical standards.

Engagement

Maximise engagement with society and industry to foster public awareness of ethics in engineering. Stress the centrality of ethics to the engineering profession, promoting debate and learn how this may influence our ethical responsibilities.

Governance and measurement

Understand ethical culture in the engineering profession, benchmark against and learn from other professions, and set targets and develop tools and guidance for future improvements.

In his introduction, Professor Sir Jim McDonald CEng FREng FRSE President, Royal Academy of Engineering, said “I would like to thank Professor David Bogle FREng and his reference group for this important and timely report on ethics. The Engineering profession acts in the service of society.

“We are therefore bound by a moral code of ethical behaviour – to act in a way that upholds the high standards expected by the public and to ensure that their safety is paramount – whether in designing bridges and skyscrapers, nuclear power stations, zero-emission vehicles or AI technologies.

“As this report shows, opinion surveys indicate that the engineering profession is generally respected by the public.

“But we cannot and must not be complacent. Ever higher expectations from society and new advances in technology require us to continually evaluate how ethical behaviours should improve and evolve over time.”

Download the full report: Royal Academy of Engineering ethics report