Proposed conflict-of-interest guidelines to govern federally-supported research
By Niraj S. Desai
Drawing on his experience of 27 years in the aerospace industry, Roger Boisjoly offered advice yesterday on how engineers should deal with ethical issues. Boisjoly, who was honored last year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his efforts to avert the Challenger disaster, spoke at a MIT panel discussion on "Engineering Ethics: Constructive Responses to Difficult Situations."
The discussion focused on proper behavior for technical professionals in a variety of situations. It included comments by Freada Klein, who consults engineering firms on ethical and employee issues; James R. Melcher PhD '62, professor of electrical engineering; and David H. Marks, head of the Department of Civil Engineering.
Boisjoly, who recounted his career at 14 different firms, saw a certain conflict between the outlook of managers and that of engineers. Too often, he said, management is more concerned with keeping to schedules and impressing clients than with properly treating technical questions. This attitude can pervade a company, he warned, corrupting the judgment of technical experts, who may be pressured to sign off a project that is flawed or even unsafe.
When he was an engineer working for Morton Thiokol on the space shuttle program, Boisjoly was warned by a superior that he would have little future in the company if he persisted
in voicing his concerns about engineering flaws in the shuttle Challenger.
Engineers should not let such appeals to be a "team player" affect their technical opinions, Boisjoly said. They can do more for the company by offering honest advice. "I still feel I was a more loyal employee at Morton Thiokel" for criticizing the Challenger program, Boisjoly said.
If an engineer discovers a flaw in a product, he should first attempt to rectify it through company channels, Boisjoly suggested. One owes that much loyalty to a company, he said. Only after exhausting all such possibilities, should one go public with complaints, he said. Also, Boisjoly advised prospective whistle-blowers to collect as much evidence on the problem as possible before taking independent action.
Besides the Challenger affair, Boisjoly described a number of other instances in which superiors pressured him to revise his reports of technical defects or limitations in products. Boisjoly suggested that engineers in such situations should ask themselves, "Would you allow your wife or children to use that product?"
Should engineers work
on certain projects?
While Boisjoly's ethical dilemmas involved technical problems in products and projects, Marks suggested the existence of another set of dilemmas in which the basic question was whether engineers should work on given products and projects.
Marks noted that professionals in his own field, civil engineering, are rarely criticized for raising questions of safety or defects; civil engineers are, after all, supposed to build large structures that "don't move," he said. But civil engineers must consider how large projects will affect communities. Such effects can be tremendous, he said. As an example, Marks suggested that the interstate highway system has altered the basic fabric of American society.
How should an engineer react when he believes a project, while technically sound, will disrupt a community or otherwise negatively impact society? Questions about how to line up one's own values with those of one's superiors or of other parts of society do not lend themselves to easy solution, Marks asserted.
Boisjoly and Klein recommended that recent graduates looking for entry-level engineering positions carefully examine a prospective employer's policies regarding quality control and the handling of technical advice. But they should be aware that such policies are sometimes mere "window dressing" that companies ignore on important matters, Klein warned.
Boisjoly also recommended that engineers seek certification and professional engineer (PE) status as a way of increasing the professional respect accorded engineers and of bolstering their clout in conflicts with superiors.