18 January 2009

Bridge criticism 2: No disparaging please, we're engineers

In a previous post, I noted that bridge design competitions often throw up designs that are uneconomic, unmaintainable and in some cases even structurally unfeasible. Yet there is a surprising lack of visible criticism of such designs: engineers generally like to keep their heads below the parapet.

One reason for this might be that engineers are ethically constrained, separate from their nervousness of the legal and commercial consequences. Do the professional bodies encourage or discourage open criticism of our peers?

In the UK, the Institution of Civil Engineers’ code of professional conduct [DOC] asks that:

“When commenting on another person’s work, members must advise that person of their involvement … members must not act maliciously or recklessly … members should take account of the broader public interest”
The ICE don't appear to contemplate the possibility of comment in journalism (let alone a blog!), where to contact everyone before commenting on their work would be a little over-the-top. But it's clearly only fair that those criticised should have a right of reply.

The ICE code draws upon the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Statement of Ethical Principles [PDF], which says that:
“Professional engineers … should be alert to the ways in which their work might affect others and duly respect the rights and reputations of other parties … Professional engineers … should uphold the reputation, standing and dignity of the profession”
That seems to put a somewhat old-fashioned notion of professional dignity above the rights of the public or wider community. Surely there are public interest issues which outweigh the rights of engineers to stand aloft from the fray?

IABSE’s Ethical Principles are considerably more specific:

“Members shall not disparage other engineers or scientists … Constructive criticism should be regarded as contributing to integrity and truthfulness”
Although the IABSE is against disparagement, it makes clear that constructive criticism is acceptable and may contribute both to the public interest and to the profession’s integrity. Indeed, it could be argued that criticism of a particularly poor design has the effect desired by the Royal Academy of upholding the profession’s reputation, by discouraging unworkable and absurd designs.

Personally, I think the public interest has to come first. If a design deserves criticism, it should receive it. The public (and, it seems, many clients) have no way to judge the engineering merits of structural engineering proposals, and it must be the case that better, more open public debate on these matters will ultimately lead to procurement of higher quality designs, and fewer cases of project failure.

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