Engineering stronger ethics


Engineers in the UK are being asked to comment on a plan to strengthen ethical thinking in their profession.

Engineering Ethics 2028 describes a proposed new ethical framework for the profession and how it can be introduced over the next nine years. It says the fundamental duty of an engineer should be to serve the public interest.

The vision was developed by ethicists at the University of Leeds.

One of the big issues, though, is that the majority of engineers, around three million people, are not affiliated with a professional engineering institution, and fall outside of any professional oversight.

"More than ever [engineers] need to consider the interests of the public in the work they do."

Dr Jim Baxter, Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre

The vision states: “…the majority of engineers are currently outside the scope of the profession’s efforts to improve or maintain their competence…or to engage them in the work of the PEIs (Professional Engineering Institutions) and RAEng (Royal Academy of Engineering) which includes public engagement on ethical issues...”

Dr Jim Baxter, from the Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre at the University of Leeds who authored the vision, said: “Engineers who are not members of a professional institutions are not necessarily ignoring their ethical and professional responsibilities but being part of a professional body strengthens the likelihood that those obligations will be met.

“Engineering Ethics 2028 has to be set against the context of rapid technological change, and that change will have an impact on all our lives.

“The people who are key to inventing, designing and building this technology are engineers.

“More than ever, they need to consider the interests of the public in the work that they do.”

Have your say 

Do you want to comment on Engineering Ethics 2028? By clicking on the link, you can read the vision and have your say on its contents.

Dr Baxter added: “Engineers have the power to do tremendous good but technology can also be harmful. The ethics vision, if the profession adopts it, will ensure they think about public opinion and the public good – and in some cases, they might have to say ‘no’ to a project.”

Engineering Ethics 2028 was drawn-up following discussion with leaders from the engineering profession, including the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), the Engineering Professors’ Council and Engineers Without Borders UK.

The vision builds on work that started back in 2003 by the RAEng to define the ethical values underlying engineering work. Two years later, the RAEng and Engineering Council jointly published their Statement of Ethical Principles.

Those principles were groundbreaking in that they said everyone involved in engineering was “…required to maintain and promote high ethical standards and challenge unethical behaviour.”

There was also an expectation that engineers should keep their knowledge up to date and “…hold paramount the health and safety of others and draw attention to hazards.”

But in 2016, a major review into the structure of UK engineering was undertaken by John Uff QC. He quoted estimates that only 15% of engineers, around one in six, were members of a professional body.

Ethical vision 

The proposed vision says efforts need to be targeted at bringing more engineers “…within the boundaries of the profession.”

The recent inquiry chaired by the engineer Dame Judith Hackitt into building regulations, established after the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, identified a lack of any formal process to validate the skills of people involved in the management of high-rise buildings as a major flaw in the regulatory system.  

Engineering Ethics 2028 suggests that the profession needs to:

  • Increase the number of engineers who are registered with a professional engineering institution and thereby bring them within the scope of professional conduct.
  • Promote a greater recognition by engineers that ethics is a fundamental part of their work.
  • Ensure engineers are aware of the impact technological innovations will have on society and that projects maximise public benefits and minimise risks.
  • To work sustainably.

Engineering Ethics 2028 was drawn up following discussions with the Engineering Council, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Engineering Professors’ Council and Engineers without Borders UK.

Engineers and engineering organisations can comment on the consultation up to January 25th 2020. 

For more information, please contact David Lewis in the University press office: