16 Engineering Ethics: An Industrial Perspective
project task forward. However, depending on a result’s relationship to the
rest of the project, a manager could interpret these results as detrimental
to meeting project milestones. Regardless of possible interpretation, it is
an engineer’s responsibility to keep the engineering manager informed
in a timely manner of negative and positive results. These results should
be presented as accurately as possible, with rational discussion of possi-
ble consequences. The manager is then responsible for acting on these
At least one of the space shuttle disasters could have been averted
had managers listened to their engineers (see Chapters 5 and 12). The
day before the Challenger exploded in 1986, Morton Thiokol engineers
Roger Boisjoly and Arnie Thompson, who had contributed to the solid-
propellant booster design, presented their hypothesis and evidence that
the forecasted cold weather for the launch would increase problems of
joint rotation and joint sealing by the O-rings. Unfortunately, NASA and
Morton Thiokol managers chose to ignore the warnings given during the
engineers’ hour-long presentation and did not postpone the launch. When
the O-rings did not seal properly the following day, hot gases escaped from
the right solid booster, burning through the external tank. This ignited the
liquid propellant, causing the Challenger to explode. Six astronauts and
school teacher Christa McAuliffe were killed (World Spaceflight News,
Now that we have a full framework for making ethical decisions, let us
discuss the types of ethical dilemmas engineers encounter at work. Please
note that in some textbooks, job choice is also considered an ethical
dilemma. Job choice may involve ethical decisions, such as whether to
work for a military/defense contractor or for a company with a poor
environmental record. However, it is not listed here because this dilemma
generally occurs before starting a job, not during a job.
As discussed previously, engineering projects may directly impact public
safety. Engineers are obliged to inform their supervisors of project risks so
that these risks can be communicated to the public. They should attain
safety through conscientious design.
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A Personal Engineering Ethics Threshold 17
High-quality engineering analysis starts with careful acquisition of
engineering data. Misrepresentation of these data or their subsequent data
analysis may disrupt a project. Misrepresentation may take the form of
fabrication (inventing data or results), falsification (manipulation of data
or results), or plagiarism (appropriation of another’s results without
proper credit). In the extreme example of Jan Hendrik Schon at Lucent
Bell Laboratories (see Chapter 10), fabrication of nanotechnology results
caused tens of millions of dollars, including funding from the U.S.
Department of Energy, to be wasted. It was estimated that 100 laboratories
in the United States and around the world were working on Schon’s
results by 2002 but could not duplicate them (Cassuto, 2002).
A trade secret is proprietary company intellectual property that has
not been patented. Typically, a new employee signs a confidentiality
agreement on the first workday that he or she will not disclose these
trade secrets to others, even after leaving for another employer.
Industrial espionage may occur when these trade secrets are publicized
without consent.
The acceptance of a gift from a vendor or the offering of a gift to a
customer to secure business has the potential to be perceived as a bribe.
Company policy should be followed in accepting or giving gifts. Any
conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety should be avoided.
The principle of informed consent refers to the right of each individual
potentially affected by a project to participate to an appropriate degree
in decision making concerning that project. Returning to the Challenger
explosion example, the astronauts should have been informed of the possi-
bility of O-ring failure before the Challenger launch occurred.
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