So as 2016 starts, it is time to look at goals for the coming year. I have several project in mind that I would like to make progress on this year. The first is interesting. We have embarked on a project that looks at engineering ethics. The study have several parts:
- Historical context
- Engineering societies
- Laws and rules by the state
- Future directions
One of my reference points is an old publication from ASCE by Murray Mantell, who I got to know about 15 years ago. He wrote such a book in 1964 when he was char of the University of Miami’s Department of Civil Engineering. I believe he has since passed on, but I have used his book in some of my courses.
Other references come from contact with the Board of Professional Engineers in each state and various society’s code of ethics, and historical versions of same. However a “hole” in our project is the perceptions piece. Views change with time and with technology. Things like competition, lobbying, risk and costs create added pressures on engineers and a need to react to those pressures. So what we would like to do is create a survey monkey survey for engineers, professional and not to respond to as a means to evaluate perceptions.
I do not have ready access to a database for this purpose. Gathering data form many states would be difficult as well and duplicative as many engineers have multiple licenses. However, your organization does not have this constraint. So I am reaching out to several societies to see if there is a means to collaborate on this endeavor. The program is as follows:
- Complete the questionnaire (I have a draft but if anyone has thoughts on what we should ask, I would love to hear them)
- Make any final changes and launch it
- Send notices to members.
I am hoping that some of these organizations will find benefit and will agree to participate by emailing the survey link to their members. I will compile the data and we expect to publish it. Most of the work so far is being done via email, and thanks to some prior students for gathering information on it. I have a ways to go here though. So what are your thoughts? If anyone can help with ASCE, NSPE, ACEC, etc, I would appreciate it. And if you get that email with a link, I would appreciate your input and comments.
Most of you that read my blog know I do a lot of hiking in National Parks. These parks are truly beautiful places and national treasures. We periodically add beautiful places to the list. These national treasures have always had huge public support (88+%), millions of visitors, and historically bi-partisan support among politicians. Parks are places for respite, for creatures to live, and places to just get away from it all. However, in hiking around, you will notice that that there are things that have not been fixed, things are closed, things are not repaired, etc. The question is why? This goes back about 20 years. Congress has not allocated funds – in fact the national Park Service budget has been reduced and upgrades unfunded. There was a $5 billion backlog when Clinton left office, which Bush said he would correct. But the backlog was $9 billion when he left office and is over $11.5 billion now and Obama says he is going to fix it. However, since 2000, the NPS operating budget has been cut over 20 percent, which only fuels the problem and makes our visits to the park more difficult. The question is when are we going to fix this?
Interesting because while Presidents say they will fix the issue, it is Congress controls the budget and Congress has been unable or unwilling to find the funds to maintain the parks. They have cut their revenues which is unfortunate for all of us. Privatizing is not the answer as some in Congress have suggested – American are not in favor of making Yosemite or Yellowstone into a theme park or commercializing the parks. We want the parks wild. And for water systems we want the parks wild because some of them are headwaters for our water supplies and we want them clean, not full or industrial or agricultural waste. So water systems should be big proponents of protecting parks. But it takes money to protect those assets. It is no different that protecting your car, your house, your buildings, your water plant or your water and sewer piping system. Oh wait, the latter one are problems, too. Sad state of affairs.
Of course it’s not just parks, the most recent State of the industry for AWWA indicated that the top 3 issues all related to infrastructure condition, water supply sustainability and cost to customers. Seems we can’t get the public to understand and our elected officials to fund all of these improvements. And we got WITAF approved, but as yes Congress has provided no funding. Same with the Everglades – promised billions, but not much flowing to everglades protection.
So the big question is: how do we get our elected officials, at all levels, to understand that by being elected, they are assuming the duties as stewards of these assets. They are elected to protect them? All of them. For us!
The most recent issue of the magazine Population Connection notes several interesting things. First, the world’s population grows by 80 million people per year, predominantly in areas that are not “first World” countries. In many of these places water is limited – 1.2 billion people live in these areas. By 2030, 40% of the people, especially those in these areas will be facing water deficits that will increase their risks. Some of these deficits will be exacerbated by climate changes. Agriculture is responsible for 70% of water use, and that number is not expected to decline as the need for agricultural products increases with time. So clearly water use and population are related, just as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and population appear to be related. Worse yet, the number of urban residents that do not have access to wastewater services is expected to increase by 50%. The good news, not so much in the US, where such services are expected and available to the vast majority of people. So the problem – most of these people live in Third World countries that lack both the economic resources and social infrastructure to deal with these problems. This is what Engineers Without Borders is trying to address but it does raise that question – what are the social consequences of trying to help them? Surely engineering ethics say we should help protect the public health, safety and welfare, which this work does. But on the other side, if they develop more and add more people, does that add to the strain on limited resources in these areas which might damage the public health safety and welfare. Which is the more critical issue? And how do we decide? How should engineers evaluate the conflict between public health and sustainability from an ethics perspective? Just asking?
Over the past couple weeks I have been at two conferences and had two interesting conversations. The first one was in Anaheim at the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition. The subject was the organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The organization has the mission to help get drinkable water to people in undeveloped parts of the world. Nearly two billion people do not have clean drinking water which drastically impacts their health and ability to be productive and earn a living. Many of these people live in Africa and Asia; some in central and South America as well. The mission is a noble one – to help people. But the guy I was talking to raised an interesting question – if we help all these people get water, they will demand more resources and if the resources are already limited, won’t creating more demands for those resources compromise our access and cost to those services? Hence helping them actually creates competition with us for the same resources and that can compromise our goals. Clearly not a fan of EWB, but, an interesting take on the issue..…
The second conversation was a few days later when a group of people were talking politics. The conversation inevitably ended up on political parties and people and service organizations like Engineers Without Borders that are often viewed as being ”liberal” or “progressive” as opposed to “conservative.” The discussion got around to this question – would conservative groups give money to progressive groups like EWB? The answer was a resounding yes, because that would improve conditions which would make people more productive, which means more jobs, and more income to give more people access to buy more things, which creates a demand for more things, which expands the economy. In other words, increase profits for those folks building the “things.” Interesting twist, and you thought is was all about water….
I could not find any actual laws or rules issues here, but does it bother anyone else that it is increasingly common for big engineering contracts to have lawyers, lobbyists, etc. get involved in what is intended to be a qualifications based selection process? I find little that specifically addresses the issue beyond some inference in older ASCE canons. In Florida, the intent of the statutory selection process might be is that governmental agencies “shall negotiate a contract with the most qualified firm for professional services at compensation which the agency determines is fair, competitive, and reasonable.” But wouldn’t employing lobbyists and lawyers frustrate this process ?. And it is not like Florida hasn’t had several elected official go to jail and/or be indicted over such issues. So as the public becomes more aware of these activities, does it create a more negative perception of engineers? And is this good for either the engineering profession or the local governments (and their utilities) involved in the selection process? The comment that “that’s how business get done” is not an acceptable argument when the priority purpose of engineers, and utility operators is the protection of the HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC. The concept of qualifications-based selection processes enacted for public agencies is that getting the professional who has the best set of qualifications usually means fewer issues arise since they have designed similar projects before and know the pitfalls. Someone who has not, likely will not, which can add unexpected costs to a job. Just a thought, but maybe it is time to think about this seriously.