The UNSW Global Water Institute hosted a public forum on the evening of the 16th of June to discuss the role of ethics in engineering. The forum was convened by Associate Professor Fiona Johnson from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and was moderated by Professor Mathew Kearnes of the School of Humanities and Languages in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture. Featured speakers included Robert Care, Professor of Practice in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chairman of RedR and former MD Australia of Arup Engineering; Dr Kirsty Howey, Co-Director, The Environment Centre NT (ECNT), Jemilah Hallinan, Practicing Lawyer with the Environment Defenders Office and Gabrielle McGill, Sr Engineer with Arup.

The forum afforded the opportunity to discuss a broad range of issues on the question of “Are engineering projects always good for the public?” Robert Care opened the discussion with the following questions: What is engineering? What is the public good? Where does ethics fit? One position is that these questions are aligned and that all engineering is ultimately for the public and all engineers are ethical. This is supported by the Engineers Australia Code of Ethics (2019), which has an expectation that engineers are “Professionals who adhere to a code of ethics to act in the interest of the public”. However, recent experience with the Opal and Mascot Towers teaches that the need for, and continued evolution of Building Regulations is necessary to protect the public, while commitments by Politicians to “build back better” following disasters such as recent floods in Northern NSW, suggest that more than a code of conduct is required to ensure that the design and construction activities align with public interests.

A more pressing reason to refocus attention and reinforce the role of ethics in the practice of engineering is the 17% decline in Australia’s score on the Corruption Index as measured by Transparency International, which corresponds to a fall in ranking of 15 places from 88/100 for the period 1985-2000 to 73/100 for the period 2001 to the present. It would be naïve to assume that standards and behaviour in the engineering profession are independent from other professions and section of society that contributed to this decline in the corruption index.  This introduction by Prof Care set the scene for different perspectives on what is needed to ensure good public outcomes from engineering projects.

Jemilah Hallinan approached the issue from a legal perspective, with emphasis on the project approval stage, including the preparation, review and approval of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In this instance, as every project has an impact, it is difficult to weigh up what is and is not in the public good. Given this complexity, it is essential that the EIS review process is both independent and thorough, which means that impacts and mitigation measures are rigorously assessed and due consideration is given to the alternatives (including the no-project option). Jemilah also emphasised that it is important that legal and scientific issues are presented clearly to public and decision makers. The discussion also examined the role of the independent expert within the legal system – where the independent expert is serving the court and seeks to assist the court to understand the points of disagreement between experts on both sides of a case. A sobering point was that, unless there are opportunities for a merits review (which are increasingly limited), the role of the legal system in ensuring the public good lies in judicial review, and therefore may only delay projects.

Gabrielle McGill from the Arup International Development team spoke about the life-changing impacts engineering projects can have on communities, and the way this motivates her and other engineers to come to work every day. However, she also acknowledged the commercial realities of for-profit engineering and how this can put pressures on achieving   the best outcomes for the public. She also spoke of the need for each individual engineer to consider their own personal ethics when determining what projects they do and don’t work on; highlighting that while projects may be pursued by the engineering industry generally or even companies one works for there is still an individual level of responsibility that one can consider when doing their work.

Kirsty Howey from the ECNT explained that civil society has mandate to advocate for public good. In some cases, this may conflict with engineering projects, but, essentially, the third sector must hold government and industry to account. As an example, if the Northern Territory (NT) proceeds with fracking, we will exceed Paris commitments quite significantly. And while Indigenous people own 56% of land in the NT, they are excluded from decisions on the future of fracking. These are both ethical reasons as to why fracking should not proceed. Kirsty also raised concerns about the marginalisation of science and expertise in these discussions, saying that it is too easy for proponents to manipulate recommendations, which often leads to a failure of the EIS process.

Panellists also discussed the great need to better include Traditional Knowledge in engineering projects, and the importance of trusted independent groups working with local communities to achieve this. With the burden of climate change predicted to fall most heavily on marginalised communities, it is becoming more critical that potential engineering projects are examined with an ethical lens—and this needs to begin at the EIS stage.

General discussion among the panel suggested that as a profession, engineers need to continue to move beyond the technical fix. The wider context to a project is vital to understand to ensure that projects are truly sustainable. A clear message from the evening was that just because the opportunity for a project exists, it does not mean the project should go ahead. Strong action is required from individuals and organisations to ensure that the public good is actually served by engineering.