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What Is a Case Study?
When you’re performing research as part of your job or for a school assignment, you’ll probably come across case studies that help you to learn more about the topic at hand. But what is a case study and why are they helpful? Read on to learn all about case studies.
Deep Dive into a Topic
At face value, a case study is a deep dive into a topic. Case studies can be found in many fields, particularly across the social sciences and medicine. When you conduct a case study, you create a body of research based on an inquiry and related data from analysis of a group, individual or controlled research environment.
As a researcher, you can benefit from the analysis of case studies similar to inquiries you’re currently studying. Researchers often rely on case studies to answer questions that basic information and standard diagnostics cannot address.
Study a Pattern
One of the main objectives of a case study is to find a pattern that answers whatever the initial inquiry seeks to find. This might be a question about why college students are prone to certain eating habits or what mental health problems afflict house fire survivors. The researcher then collects data, either through observation or data research, and starts connecting the dots to find underlying behaviors or impacts of the sample group’s behavior.
During the study period, the researcher gathers evidence to back the observed patterns and future claims that’ll be derived from the data. Since case studies are usually presented in the professional environment, it’s not enough to simply have a theory and observational notes to back up a claim. Instead, the researcher must provide evidence to support the body of study and the resulting conclusions.
As the study progresses, the researcher develops a solid case to present to peers or a governing body. Case study presentation is important because it legitimizes the body of research and opens the findings to a broader analysis that may end up drawing a conclusion that’s more true to the data than what one or two researchers might establish. The presentation might be formal or casual, depending on the case study itself.
Once the body of research is established, it’s time to draw conclusions from the case study. As with all social sciences studies, conclusions from one researcher shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, but they’re helpful for advancing the body of knowledge in a given field. For that purpose, they’re an invaluable way of gathering new material and presenting ideas that others in the field can learn from and expand upon.
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- Engineering Ethics Cases
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- Engineering Ethics
The following series of engineering ethics cases were created by interviewing numerous engineers from Silicon Valley and beyond.
The cases have been written, anonymized, and honed to highlight the ethical content from each interview. While these cases are meant for engineering students and professionals for their professional development, nearly all of the cases occur in the context of business, and therefore are also relevant for those seeking business ethics cases.
These cases are suitable as homework and/or for classroom discussion. The goal of this project is to acquaint engineering students and professionals with the variety of ethical experiences of engineering as practiced “in the field.” By becoming familiar with problems faced by other engineers we hope to thereby prepare those reading these cases if they too encounter difficult ethical dilemmas in their work.
Cases range from the mundane to the deadly. While we do not reveal how each particular case turned out, in general they turned out well – the people involved made the right decisions. But this is not to say that all of these right decisions came without personal cost. A few of the engineers did face negative repercussions and a very few even needed to find new employment. However, overall the interviewees were satisfied with how events turned out, even if they faced negative repercussions for their good decisions. They understood that doing the right thing is good in itself, regardless of the personal consequences they may have faced.
The engineering ethics cases can be sorted into the following categories:
- Academic Ethics
- Business Ethics
- Civil Engineering
- Computer/Software Engineering
- Electrical Engineering
- Mechanical Engineering
- Science/Research Ethics
A quality assurance engineer must decide whether or not to ship products that might be defective.
An intern at a power electronics startup faces unkind comments from a fellow engineer. She suspects that her colleague is prejudice toward female engineers.
A chemical engineering professor discovers that a colleague has taken credit for his research.
A bioengineering researcher discovers an error in protocol and feels pressured not to report it to her supervisor.
A graduate student suspects her research adviser has earned tenure under false pretenses.
A computer startup company risks violating copyright laws if it reuses a code that is the intellectual property of another company.
A recently promoted manager at an industrial engineering company discovers that factory workers are asked to work more than eight hours a day without getting paid overtime.
Full transparency might prevent a project leader from closing a deal with a valuable client. Should he still clarify the situation to his client?
A manager at a consumer electronics company struggles over whether or not he should disclose confidential information to a valued customer.
A medical researcher is asked to trim data before presenting it to the scientific advisory board.
A technical sales engineer feels pressure to falsify a sales report in order to prevent the delay of her company's IPO.
When a computer filled with personal data gets stolen, a data company must decide how to manage the breach in security.
Employees of a computer hardware company are angered by a manager that demonstrates favoritism.
A project engineer believes his company is providing the wrong form of technology to an in-need community in East Africa.
A computer engineer is asked to divulge private medical data for marketing purposes.
Environmental engineers face pressure to come up with data that favors their employers.
In this ethics case, a woman is displeased with her work role at a computer hardware company.
A systems engineering company employee quits after getting pressured to falsify product testing paperwork.
A manager at a nonprofit mechanical engineering firm questions how responsible her company should be for ongoing maintenance on past projects.
An engineer for an environmental consulting firm must decide whether or not he should encourage his client to go with a more environmentally sustainable construction plan.
A genetic engineer feels a responsibility to educate colleagues on the truth behind stem cell research.
An engineering manager gets pressured to bribe a foreign official in order to secure a business venture in East Africa.
An African-American electronics design lead wonders whether his colleague's contentious behavior is motivated by racism.
A medical company asks blood sample suppliers to sign an ethically questionable consent form.
A quality assurance tester gets pressured to falsify data about a new product from a major cell phone company.
Should a production engineer prioritize a customer's desires over safety?
A female intern at a construction company faces disrespectful treatment because of her gender.
A new hire at an electronics startup struggles to decide between telling the truth and maximizing the company's profit.
A fellow for a global services program faces an ethical dilemma when a colleague asks him to falsify receipts.
A researcher of regenerative medicine meets a man who is eager sign up for potentially dangerous human testing.
A bioengineer's research leads to the discovery that a patient might have prostate cancer.
Two support engineers at a South Bay audio visual electronics startup question the fairness of a supervisor's decision.
An employee overseeing data analysis on a clinical drug trial has concerns about the safety of a client's drug.
The engineering ethics cases in this series were written by Santa Clara University School of Engineering students Clare Bartlett, Nabilah Deen, and Jocelyn Tan, who worked as Hackworth Engineering Ethics Fellows at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year. In order to write these cases, the fellows interviewed numerous engineers and collected nearly 40 engineering ethics cases from Silicon Valley and beyond. The Hackworth Fellowships are made possible by a generous gift from Joan and the late Michael Hackworth.
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5 Disastrous Engineering Failures Due to Ethics
Engineering failures due to ethics are not new. From the Johnstown Flood in 1889 to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, engineering failures have been caused by problems in design, construction and safety protocol.
The blame can often be laid at ignorance, miscommunications and, in some extreme cases, indifference or negligence. After many of these engineering disasters however, professionals and leaders have learned from the wrong decisions that were made. Here, we discuss some of the worst engineering disasters and what caused them.
Not all engineering mistakes are associated with large-scale feats or impressive architectural marvels. From 1971 through 1976, the Ford Motor Company produced and sold more than 2.2 million Ford Pintos. The automaker set out to make a competitive, affordable car, but late into the development of its design, engineers discovered an issue with the fuel tank. Located between the rear axle and the bumper, the tank punctured and ruptured easily due to the car’s design. Ford’s engineers recommended an easy fix to the problem, one that would cost an additional $11 for each vehicle. In spite of this, the company decided to continue with the design as is, both to keep the cost low and to not delay production.
After just a few years on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating accidents involving the small car catching fire, but it took an article from the magazine Mother Jones to bring to light the Pinto’s danger to the public as well as Ford’s previous knowledge of it. After losing a lawsuit, Ford recalled the Pinto in 1978 and fixed vehicles with the original suggested solution. Some estimate that between 27 and 180 people died from the fuel tank issue. 1
The saga of the Love Canal is one of the first major environmental disasters in the U.S. The project originally began in 1894 when an entrepreneur attempted to build a canal in Niagara Falls, New York, to bring water and hydroelectric power to the city. The project was never completed, but in 1947, the canal was sold to Hooker Chemicals and Plastic Corporation. The company lined the unfinished canal with clay and began dumping chemicals and waste into the then isolated site. In 1953, the site was sold again, but this time to build an elementary school and houses.
Controversy remains over whether Hooker or the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which chose the site in spite of strict restrictions detailed in the land deed, is responsible for the consequences from building on the site. During the construction of the school, homes and a sewer line were built on and through the canal. The clay lining broke and chemicals began seeping into the ground. Eventually a state of emergency was declared by New York. Residents reported miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other disorders and continued to fight to keep the site vacant years after they were evacuated. Today, the ramifications of this environmental and engineering failure still impacts building and policy today. 2
The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway
One year after the Hyatt Regency Hotel was completed in Kansas City, Missouri, two walkways suspended over the atrium lobby collapsed in July 1981. It happened in the middle of a dance, with attendees packed on the walkways and the floor below. More than 200 were injured, and 114 people were killed.
A series of decisions and miscommunications were found to be at fault. The original designs for the walkways violated the city’s weight-bearing codes: The second and fourth story walkways were suspended by slim sets of rods anchored to the ceiling. However, following a discussion with the fabricator during construction, the decision was made to attach the set of rods supporting the second-floor walkway to the bottom of the fourth—instead of the ceiling. That meant the rods attached to the fourth-floor walkway were supporting twice the weight than the original design intended. A lack of proper communication was blamed for the design change not being analyzed and approved properly, but the engineers involved with the site and the fabricators refused to accept responsibility. 3
New Orleans’ Levee System
The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that the destruction of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is unique among engineering failures. No one single decision led to the disaster, but rather systemic failures were the cause.
During construction, the Army Corps of Engineers failed to follow their own guidelines when estimating the strength of the soil—and designed the system to withstand low hurricane wind speeds. The height of the levees was another of many engineering mistakes: In addition to using flawed data about land elevation, the Corps also did not take into account the land’s natural, gradual sinking. In addition, local, state and federal politics and mismanagement played a role in both the quality and speediness of the construction and in failing to fund and maintain the system.
Across the Gulf Coast, more than 1,800 died and more than $100 billion in damage was caused. New Orleans was one of the hardest hit regions from Hurricane Katrina. Roughly 80 percent of the city and its surrounding area were flooded. 4
More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912. Over the years, many have researched and investigated the details of its sinking, and it has been determined that a number of design issues and poor decisions led to its sinking in just over two and-a-half hours.
As one of the biggest ocean liners of its day, the Titanic featured 16 watertight compartments. If four of those flooded, the ship would still be able to stay afloat. Six compartments flooded though because the bulkheads were not tall enough to hold the water. 5 Some potential causes behind the ship’s sinking include designs that failed to take into account its size and mobility, the speed the ship was traveling, ignored warnings about the likelihood of icebergs and other factors. 6
One flaw that is undisputed though: There were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The 20 lifeboats would only have had space for roughly 1,200 people, while more than 2,200 passengers and crew were on board the ship. Additional lifeboats had been removed from the design because the ship owners were worried that it made the ship look unsafe and seemed packed on the deck.
Discover Your Next Step
Importance of leadership.
Decisions that impact the integrity of a design or its construction usually come from the top down. Lapses in leadership can lead to these kinds of engineering failures due to ethics. That’s why it’s essential to have leaders trained in both ethical decision-making and technical decision-making.
At the Case School of Engineering, our online graduate programs focus on developing the skills in leadership and ethics that highly skilled engineers need to be successful. Joining our program means joining a network of experienced engineering leaders from a number of different industries. Learn more about who our students are .
- Retrieved on March 20, 2020, from popularmechanics.com/cars/a6700/top-automotive-engineering-failures-ford-pinto-fuel-tanks
- Retrieved on March 20, 2020, from encyclopedia.com/places/united-states-and-canada/us-political-geography/love-canal
- Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from asce.org/question-of-ethics-articles/jan-2007
- Retrieved on April 9, 2020 from asce.org/question-of-ethics-articles/july-2015/
- Retrieved on April 9, 2020 from nationalgeographic.org/media/sinking-of-the-titanic/
- Retrieved on April 9, 2020 from nbcnews.com/sciencemain/10-causes-titanic-tragedy-620220
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The following constitute all published opinions of the NSPE Board of Ethical Review. Opinions issued by the NSPE Board of Ethical review prior to 1980 are provided solely for historic purposes and may no longer be valid because of changes to the NSPE Code of Ethics as well as legal and regulatory requirements.
NSPE Code of Ethics:
Engineering is an important and learned profession. As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.
Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:
Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
Perform services only in areas of their competence.
Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
Avoid deceptive acts.
Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.
Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
If engineers' judgment is overruled under circumstances that endanger life or property, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate.
Engineers shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards.
Engineers shall not reveal facts, data, or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized or required by law or this Code.
Engineers shall not permit the use of their name or associate in business ventures with any person or firm that they believe is engaged in fraudulent or dishonest enterprise.
Engineers shall not aid or abet the unlawful practice of engineering by a person or firm.
Engineers having knowledge of any alleged violation of this Code shall report thereon to appropriate professional bodies and, when relevant, also to public authorities, and cooperate with the proper authorities in furnishing such information or assistance as may be required.
Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.
Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields involved.
Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control.
Engineers may accept assignments and assume responsibility for coordination of an entire project and sign and seal the engineering documents for the entire project, provided that each technical segment is signed and sealed only by the qualified engineers who prepared the segment.
Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony, which should bear the date indicating when it was current.
Engineers may express publicly technical opinions that are founded upon knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter.
Engineers shall issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on technical matters that are inspired or paid for by interested parties, unless they have prefaced their comments by explicitly identifying the interested parties on whose behalf they are speaking, and by revealing the existence of any interest the engineers may have in the matters.
Engineers shall act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest that could influence or appear to influence their judgment or the quality of their services.
Engineers shall not accept compensation, financial or otherwise, from more than one party for services on the same project, or for services pertaining to the same project, unless the circumstances are fully disclosed and agreed to by all interested parties.
Engineers shall not solicit or accept financial or other valuable consideration, directly or indirectly, from outside agents in connection with the work for which they are responsible.
Engineers in public service as members, advisors, or employees of a governmental or quasi-governmental body or department shall not participate in decisions with respect to services solicited or provided by them or their organizations in private or public engineering practice.
Engineers shall not solicit or accept a contract from a governmental body on which a principal or officer of their organization serves as a member.
Engineers shall avoid deceptive acts.
Engineers shall not falsify their qualifications or permit misrepresentation of their or their associates' qualifications. They shall not misrepresent or exaggerate their responsibility in or for the subject matter of prior assignments. Brochures or other presentations incident to the solicitation of employment shall not misrepresent pertinent facts concerning employers, employees, associates, joint venturers, or past accomplishments.
Engineers shall not offer, give, solicit, or receive, either directly or indirectly, any contribution to influence the award of a contract by public authority, or which may be reasonably construed by the public as having the effect or intent of influencing the awarding of a contract. They shall not offer any gift or other valuable consideration in order to secure work. They shall not pay a commission, percentage, or brokerage fee in order to secure work, except to a bona fide employee or bona fide established commercial or marketing agencies retained by them.
Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity.
Engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.
Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when they believe a project will not be successful.
Engineers shall not accept outside employment to the detriment of their regular work or interest. Before accepting any outside engineering employment, they will notify their employers.
Engineers shall not attempt to attract an engineer from another employer by false or misleading pretenses.
Engineers shall not promote their own interest at the expense of the dignity and integrity of the profession.
Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.
Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest.
Engineers are encouraged to participate in civic affairs; career guidance for youths; and work for the advancement of the safety, health, and well-being of their community.
Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project.
Engineers are encouraged to extend public knowledge and appreciation of engineering and its achievements.
Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development 1 in order to protect the environment for future generations. Footnote 1 "Sustainable development" is the challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development.
Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and should keep current in their specialty fields by engaging in professional practice, participating in continuing education courses, reading in the technical literature, and attending professional meetings and seminars.
Engineers shall avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public.
Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact.
Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may advertise for recruitment of personnel.
Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may prepare articles for the lay or technical press, but such articles shall not imply credit to the author for work performed by others.
Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential information concerning the business affairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer, or public body on which they serve.
Engineers shall not, without the consent of all interested parties, promote or arrange for new employment or practice in connection with a specific project for which the engineer has gained particular and specialized knowledge.
Engineers shall not, without the consent of all interested parties, participate in or represent an adversary interest in connection with a specific project or proceeding in which the engineer has gained particular specialized knowledge on behalf of a former client or employer.
Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests.
Engineers shall not accept financial or other considerations, including free engineering designs, from material or equipment suppliers for specifying their product.
Engineers shall not accept commissions or allowances, directly or indirectly, from contractors or other parties dealing with clients or employers of the engineer in connection with work for which the engineer is responsible.
Engineers shall not attempt to obtain employment or advancement or professional engagements by untruthfully criticizing other engineers, or by other improper or questionable methods.
Engineers shall not request, propose, or accept a commission on a contingent basis under circumstances in which their judgment may be compromised.
Engineers in salaried positions shall accept part-time engineering work only to the extent consistent with policies of the employer and in accordance with ethical considerations.
Engineers shall not, without consent, use equipment, supplies, laboratory, or office facilities of an employer to carry on outside private practice.
Engineers shall not attempt to injure, maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of other engineers. Engineers who believe others are guilty of unethical or illegal practice shall present such information to the proper authority for action.
Engineers in private practice shall not review the work of another engineer for the same client, except with the knowledge of such engineer, or unless the connection of such engineer with the work has been terminated.
Engineers in governmental, industrial, or educational employ are entitled to review and evaluate the work of other engineers when so required by their employment duties.
Engineers in sales or industrial employ are entitled to make engineering comparisons of represented products with products of other suppliers.
Engineers shall accept personal responsibility for their professional activities, provided, however, that engineers may seek indemnification for services arising out of their practice for other than gross negligence, where the engineer's interests cannot otherwise be protected.
Engineers shall conform with state registration laws in the practice of engineering.
Engineers shall not use association with a nonengineer, a corporation, or partnership as a "cloak" for unethical acts.
Engineers shall give credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and will recognize the proprietary interests of others.
Engineers shall, whenever possible, name the person or persons who may be individually responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.
Engineers using designs supplied by a client recognize that the designs remain the property of the client and may not be duplicated by the engineer for others without express permission.
Engineers, before undertaking work for others in connection with which the engineer may make improvements, plans, designs, inventions, or other records that may justify copyrights or patents, should enter into a positive agreement regarding ownership.
Engineers' designs, data, records, and notes referring exclusively to an employer's work are the employer's property. The employer should indemnify the engineer for use of the information for any purpose other than the original purpose.
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- APS: Ethics Case Studies Ethical case studies from the American Physical Society.
- ASCE: A Question of Ethics An online archive of ethical cases considered by the ASCE Committee on Professional Conduct or of ethical issues affecting the profession of civil engineer.
- BEEP: Bioethics Case Studies Courtesy of the Bioethics Education Project, University of Bristol (UK).
- Edison Vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry This Smithsonian Magazine article discusses Thomas Edison's extreme attempts to vilify alternating current.
- Garret Harding: "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968) A special online issue of Science magazine, devoted to the implications of this seminal essay.
- The Genetics (and Ethics) of Making Humans Fit for Mars This 2018 Wired Magazine article examines the question of using genetic engineering to make human colonizers more able to succeed on Mars.
- Guardian (UK): Ethics News Ethical issues in the news from a leading British newspaper.
- Markulla Center for Applied Ethics: Case Studies Case studies and scenarios on a variety of fields in applied ethics.
- National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science Nearly 600 cases in all areas of science and engineering.
- NSPE Board of Review Ethical Case Studies Ethical case studies from the National Society of Professional Engineers.
- Online Ethics Center: Cases & Scenarios Hypothetical case studies.
- PBS NOVA: Holocaust on Trial: Death-camp Experiments This NOVA presentation examines the ethical issues surrounding Nazi medical experiments on human beings.
- Unlawful Killing with Combat Drones: A Case Study of Pakistan, 2004-2009 An ethical analysis of drone warfare by Prof. Mary Ellen O'Connell of the University of Notre Dame Law School.
- Would It Be Ethical To Colonize Mars? This Forbes Magazine piece looks at the various ethical, environmental, and social dilemmas posed by human colonization of the Red Planet.
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ME 415: Engineering Ethics 4 — Case Study Examples
Now that we’ve covered the need for ethical standards , reviewed standards for ethical conduct , and applied those ethical standards to the Challenger disaster , it’s time to bring up some of the more common ethical conundrums engineers are likely to face and apply our design process for working through those issues.
Remember our Ethical problem solving process:
- Establish a system boundary for the problem — what is it that you are studying and what are the key drivers/influences affecting the system.
- List facts and assumptions — what are the knowns and unknowns for the problem
- Establish precedence and intent — review the prior art
- Apply applicable laws, codes, and standards
- Develop a solution to render verdict and prevent such acts from reoccurring
Let’s apply this process to work through some ethical conundrums I’ve personally encountered:
Example 1: Cheating/Forgery of information
At a prior institution I had the opportunity to share office space with a Professional Engineer (PE) who had an actual stamp from a former job where they worked at a nuclear power plant. I was often in classes with this PE and noticed that they never missed any points on homeworks or exams. One time the PE even drew and erased curves on an exam several times, not changing the curvature or inflection points, just re-positioning the line until it looked exactly like the solution. This was confusing because the PE could never seem to explain why they chose their particular solution strategy. In an advanced course, I noticed the PE’s solutions were always identical to the professor’s, even when multiple solution strategies were valid. Eventually the professor made the same mistake on an assignment that I had worked for days to point out as wrong to the PE.
Clearly something unethical is going on here. Am I bound by a Code of Ethics to report this suspicious behavior as this person is a full PE? How would you handle this?
My solution: Don’t accuse! Gather more information. I went to the professor of the class, who was a very meticulous, wrote all of his own problems, and was a well respected person of the department. I informed the professor that some weird behavior was occurring on exams and tests in his classes, one person reliably made the same mistakes as the solutions. The Professor’s response was, “Wow, that is a coincidence.” Not satisfied, I simply asked if he had the solution material stored or backed up in a place that could be accessed. He paused, and said, “Now that you mention it, I back up all of my assignments and exams on the shared lab drive.” I asked him to stop backing up those assignments for the remaining few classes of the semester. The change was apparent. The PE’s homework and exam scores, which had been flawless, immediately plummeted and he desperately worked through the assignments with the rest of us, but was way behind in understanding. The change was apparent to the professor too. Although the PE was never publicly confronted about the change, it would have been extremely difficult for the professor to bring this proof to the Insitutional boards for such matters, and moreover the PE was in the same lab as the professor. One day the PE got into the elevator and the doors shut right as the professor walked in, a conversation was exchanged, and the PE ended up leaving for another institution.
Example 2: Reporting of Safety Violations
I once knew a Professional Engineer (PE) who still conducted research in their lab. One day, a researcher accidentally mixed two substances in the fume hood, leading to an explosion that destroyed the hood. The PE, under pressure to reduce accidents in their unit, did not report the incident to others as they were the only required chain of reporting. Months later, a another researcher in their unit, who was un-informed of the first incident, had a similar incident that destroyed another fume hood. A year later, a similar accident sent 16 people to the hospital at another organization. The PE eventually moved to make safety incidents, and failure to report these safety incidents, part of performance evaluations for their unit.
Since this person is a PE, am I required to report this behavior to the Board of Ethical review? Did unethical behavior occur?
My Solution: In this case the PE clearly made bad decisions not to lead by example or be transparent with information that led to further damage to equipment. However, the PE made corrections to try to prevent the incident from occurring again in their group, which is clearly ethical. Moreover, at the time they were not required to report this information to their subordinates within their organization. Although the Licensee’s Obligation to Society specifies, “3. Licensees shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate when their professional judgement is overruled under circumstances where the life, health, property, or welfare of the public is endangered.” the Licensee’s Obligation to Other Licensee’s states, “3. Licensees shall not attempt to inure, maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of other licensees, nor indiscriminately criticize other licensees’ work.” In this case, growing criticism from their peers prompted the PE to seek employment elsewhere before official measures needed to be taken.
Example 3: Accepting Gifts
A self proclaimed “Vigilante Millionaire” (VM) for clean energy announced they would visit my research laboratory with an interest in developing a new collaboration. The VM did not need official ties to a company or organization due to their wealth and preferred to operate “quietly” as this allowed more freedom to operate and not register as a lobbyist. The VM was very well connected with other researchers and program managers, however none of them could decisively vouch for the VM’s credibility. Other concerns emerged when the VM was unable to pay for certain items and claimed “that’s the first time that’s happened” despite my direct experience to the contrary. Eventually the VM revealed their intent to start a business in this area, partner with me, and that their ostensible goals of building and furthering the community were not entirely selfless. After my frustration with this revelation, the VM tried to use contacts to upgrade some airline seats I had to first class and offered tickets to get into high-level political events.
Is the VM trying to get me engaged in unethical behavior? The VM is not an Engineer. Can I accept the gifts?
My solution: I had to gather more information. I had introduced this VM to some of my professional colleagues. I called them and expressed my resentment at having made the introduction and said that I had reasons to no longer associate with the VM. After explaining this, some of my other contacts revealed that the VM had received large government awards but had difficulty finishing them well with large portions of the project not finished, but the money was gone. A friend referred me to the movie “Leverage” and what is known as the Long Con:
There are three key players in any long con: a victim, a con artist, and one or more associates.
- The Mark : The intended victim of the Con.
- The Grifter : A practitioner of confidence tricks, or more informally, a con artist. A grifter may play many roles, and often creates multiple personas over their career.
- The Shill : An accomplice to the grifter, who has no apparent connection to the con. Shills are put in place to encourage the mark to act in the desired way.
In this case I clearly wasn’t the mark. But as an engineer, my primary resource/asset is my credibility. Having written the world standard for hydrogen property estimation and running the leading cryogenic hydrogen lab in the US makes me a target to become a Shill.
After seeing this potential for a substantial conflict of interest and unethical activity I broke off connections with the VM and certainly did not accept the gifts.
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