OEC Forum

This section contains a moderated forum for comments, questions, and answers related to the OEC mission to serve engineers, students and educators in responsible research and practice in engineering. 

Please note: This forum is designed for educational purposes only, and individuals are not engaged through this forum in rendering legal or ethical advice or professional services. Irrelevant or unrelated information will not be posted. Only those remarks deemed useful to the broader community of OEC visitors will be posted on the website. We encourage you to seek the services of an attorney for legal advice or a professional engineer for any engineering advice you may require.

Please allow several days for remarks to be posted.

Add Question

  • Answer by Frazier Benya

    Because engineering in forms that are socially recognized as such still subscribes to either codes of ethics or standards of behavior or conduct. Engineering professions do not require their members to follow the codes or ethics like physicians and Professional Engineers do; rather they are guides and standards for the group to follow. You would then ask why would engineering professionals want to or be obligated to follow these codes of ethics if they are not required to, or face no legal penalties if they do not. I believe this is best answered by Michael Davis in his article "Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 20, no. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 150-167). To quickly summarize his argument: engineers get benefits from supporting and thus following their code of ethics (even if its not required of them) which allows them the ultimate benefit of being able to call themselves an Engineer, even if it is not in accordance with the legal restrictions referring to Professional Engineers. "Since Lund [the engineer being used in his case study] voluntarily accepts the benefits of being an engineer (by claiming to be an engineer), he is morally obliged to follow the (morally permissible) convention that helps to make those benefits possible." The benefits that Davis claims engineers get from following the code of ethics are:

    (1) protection for them and those they care about from being injured by what other engineers, who are not following the code, do.

    (2) assuring each engineer a working environment in which it will be easier than it would otherwise to resist pressure to do what that engineer would rather not do. This benefit refers to the backing and grounds on which engineers get to draw on when, for instance, concerns over safety and reliability are being minimized in favor of profits or expediency.

    (3) making their profession a practice in which they do not feel morally justified embarrassment, shame, or guilt.

    (4) the ability to claim to be an engineer and reap those benefits.

  • Hi, Jen:
    What a great idea, and a great question! There is a bibliography on the OEC about case studies that we have updated with articles with relevant information based on your question.  

    The cases section of the OEC has a place to click on resource types that indicates categories for cases – such as historical, fictionalized, hypothetical, and numerical.  Some people distinguish between cases that raise issues of moral courage and those that involve technical (which may be technical in a broad sense) questions.  The disjunction is not exclusive, obviously, but pushing on the technical elements may be more engaging to engineering faculty looking for good ideas for their classrooms.  We also have metadata for searching OEC items including the cases, and we hope to include drop-down windows with those categories for easier browsing in the future. In the mean time, we can send you the list of categories, and it might provide some useful information for thinking about constructing cases.  

    The bottom line to me is that there are lots of kinds of cases, raising lots of kinds of questions.  At times it is even hard to draw a line between what is a case and what isn’t one.  This is further complicated, as you can well imagine, when you are dealing with a topic as complex as nuclear technology and policy; but at least that gives a good basis/context for beginning to identify the ethical questions – historical and contemporary.   I think it is important to recognize that cases – particularly in an area such as nuclear power and public policy – can be thought about very broadly.  Thus, something like the NPR interview by Ira Flatow about the decisions concerning the controlled releases affecting flooding along the Mississippi, to my mind constitutes a “case” or at least can be used to develop a “case.”  The kinds of questions that can be raised are only very, very partially captured by asking about ethical choices facing individual engineers in the Army Corps right now.  So the traditional sorts of ethical focuses of many cases in science and engineering ethics (What should a scientist or engineer do faced with a binary choice?) would be only somewhat relevant to the ethically significant choices that societies and organizations in society and policy contexts face.  Perhaps that’s one kind of guideline – look for both meaningful individual opportunities for choices or practices that could make a difference, while at the same time look for the historical actions and decisions where different ones would have been “possible” and “possibly better,” and identify current circumstances where those opportunities are also present.  
    The case/issue you’ve selected has been much written about, as I am sure you know – books have examined the ethical issues involved in nuclear power and policy regimes and would probably be a good source from which to extract relevant cases/stories.  The OEC contains a bibliography on energy production and also one on energy use
    CEES Advisory Group chair John Ahearne has a significant history examining nuclear policy, so might be a good person to bounce draft cases around with.  The former chief Executive Officer of the Academies, Wllm. (Bill) Colglazier) worked on nuclear policy issues for many years and may be another potential resource.  

    A part of your approach might include noting the policy exercises/studies concerning nuclear power options that are currently going on – in Congress, for instance, or at the Academies, in DOE, in the states etc. They’d concern, e.g. nuclear waste disposal (a perennial), responses to Fukushima – and allow description and analysis of the political and social agendas and then looking at the technical as well as communication issues/problems in that light.

    Best, Rachelle    


  • Answer by Kelly Laas

    I think the closest I came to finding this was a series of five videocassettes recording the entirety of the hearings. I found them via WorldCat, a database of library holdings throughout the U.S.

    Presidential Commission Board
    William Rogers
    English Visual Material : Videorecording 5 videocassettes (1 hr. each) : sd., col. ; 3/4 in.
    Houston, TX. : Johnson Space Center.

    It looks as if the originals are being held by the National Archives Motion Picture, Sound and Video unit, Special Media Archives Services Division. Your best bet might be to speak with someone at the National Archives to see if he can get a copy of the videos through them. I did a search of NARA’s archival catalogue http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/ of “Rogers, Challenger” and pulled up all the records of the videotapes.

    There are also a number of documentaries that exist, including the Space Shuttle Accident Investigation, put together by NASA, and available at http://www.archive.org/details/ChallengerAccidentandInvestigation through the Internet Archive. This one seems to be the closest I could find.

    Hope one of these is correct!

  • Answer by OEC Staff

    They are related, and you can see an explanation in the OEC Glossary under Ethics and Morals.

  • Answer by Keith Miller

    First of all, I recommend that you use the Software Engineering Code, not the general IEEE code. IEEE has approved this code. See http://seeri.etsu.edu/Codes/default.shtm for more details.

    Second, good luck trying to find “official” ethics violations. Very few such cases exist. I know of no recent cases that have been documented. For one thing, there is no one designated to declare people’s actions unethical, I don’t think.

    Instead of looking for official cases, I suggest looking at cases of ethics violations (they are all over the news, or you can look at the RISKS digest for write ups: http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/risks ). Once you have found a case, then go through the full version of the Software Engineering Code, and find clauses (the sentences marked as X.YZ under the major clause X) that people transgressed in this case.

    I often do this sort of exercise with my graduate computer science students.

  • Answer 1 by Rachelle Hollander

    The National Institute for Engineering Ethics has a collection of videos that portray ethical problems for practicing engineers.  They are more than 10-15 minutes though; more like an hour.  They can be stopped at various places where issues arise to provoke discussion.  NIEE distributed the videos to the deans of engineering schools, so I wonder what's become of those copies.  In any event, you can probably find out about them and maybe get copies from NIEE, and their url is <a href="http://www.niee.org/murdoughcenter/">www.niee.org/murdoughcenter/</a>. 

    Answer 2 by Michael C. Loui
    Some engineering ethics videos on YouTube: Skits by students at Kansas State University: http://www.youtube.com/user/enggethics Brief lessons by me: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=746AE3CCB29B64B8 The NIEE ( www.niee.org ) offers longer, professionally filmed movies that dramatize realistic but fictional cases in engineering ethics. Gilbane Gold runs about 25 minutes, Incident at Morales runs 36 minutes, and Ethicana (just finished) runs about 50 minutes. Another video will appear next year.
    Answer 3 by S. Raghavan
    The University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently posted some RCR Videos that may also be of use: http://research.unl.edu/orr/videos.shtml.
  • Answer 1 by Stephanie J. Bird

    I don't know what "Lesson 4.1, Problem 4.1.2" refers to. My short answer to "What actions are considered cheating?" is "In general, anything that is done for the purpose of deceiving someone else for personal gain or advantage. It has three essential elements: (1) more than one person, (2) intentional deception or dishonesty, and (3) a goal of personal gain, whether money, property, or public image. Cheating oneself and self-deception are more complicated concepts."

    Answer 2 by Michael Pritchard
    Bernard Gert has a very good article, "Cheating," in Teaching Ethics, vol 6, no. 1, Fall 2005, pp. 15-27.
  • Answer by OEC Staff

    Dear Nana,

    Cases can be analysed in a number of ways, and there are resources on the OEC to help.  Try looking at these pages for some ideas:



    You might also want to look at the workshop summary for Ethics Education and Scientific and Engineering Research:
    What's Been Learned? What Should Be Done?.
      Particularly look at Chapter 3 on Ethics Education in Science and Engineering.

  • Answer 1 by Michael C. Loui

    The evidence is mixed. Self and Ellison (1998) and Sindelar et al. (2003) demonstrated that in a full three-credit course on engineering ethics, the moral reasoning skills of students improve significantly. In a survey of students who had experienced sessions on responsible conduct of reserach, Plemmons et al. (2006) found that students felt they had acquired basic information, but had not improved skills or changed attitudes. These and other studies (Brown and Kalichman, 1998; Funk et al., 2007) have generally ignored differences in the methods of instruction, however.

    Brown, S., & Kalichman, M. W. (1998). Effects of training in the responsible conduct of research: a survey of graduate students in experimental sciences. Science and Engineering Ethics, 4 (4), 487-498.

    Funk, C. L., Barrett, K. A., & Macrina, F. L. (2007). Authorship and publication practices: evaluation of the effect of responsible conduct of research instruction to postdoctoral trainees. Accountability in Research, 14, 269-305.

    Plemmons, D. K., Brody, S. Z., & Kalichman, M. W. (2006). Student perceptions of the effectiveness of education in the responsible conduct of research. Science and Engineering Ethics, 12 (3), 571–582.

    Self, D.J. & Ellison, E.M. (1998). Teaching engineering ethics: assessment of its influence on moral reasoning skills. Journal of Engineering Education, 87, 29-34.

    Sindelar, M., Shuman, L., Besterfield-Sacre, M., Miller, R., Mitcham, C., Olds, B., Pinkus, R. & Wolfe, H. (2003). Assessing engineering students’ abilities to resolve ethical dilemmas, in: Proceedings, Thirty-Third Annual ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, Westminster, Colo., November 5–8, 2003, pp. S2A-25 to S2A-31.

    Answer 2 by Rachelle Hollander
    The University of Massachusetts Amherst has initiated a digital ethics library that it says "will also provide resources necessary to examine the advantages and disadvantages of using stand alone, off-the-shelf, online training packages and programs for teaching ethics. While these programs and materials can be efficient methods of teaching ethics, many experts question their effectiveness (See Kalichman 2005; NAE 2009; Schrag 2005; Sieber 2005; Smith-Doer, Journal of Empirical Research in Human Research, 2009, and others). The beta library will be a resource for institutions as they decide how their institutions will ensure appropriate ethics training for researchers."  

  • Here are a few suggestions:

    Under oec/resources/institutional programs there’s a link to the CGS PSI:  http://www.scholarlyintegrity.org/ShowContent.aspx?id=406#.  On the right hand side of that page, there’s a highlight to the Project on Scholarly Integrity:  A Framework for Collaborative Action.  That 2008 paper has a lot of good suggestions.  It is geared toward schools with graduate programs in the sciences, but many of the suggestions are generally useful. 

    The description of the Penn State program below gives another approach, again focused on the sciences but generally useful: http://www.research.psu.edu/orp/sari/.  The Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State also has useful resources:  http://php.scripts.psu.edu/dept/rockethics/index.php.   Finally, Lesley University administrators and faculty interested in RCR might contact the Responsible Conduct of Research Educational Committee, a committee of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics; information at http://www.indiana.edu/~appe/rcrec.html.  

  • One multi-disciplinary membership organization with a focus on practical and professional ethics, including science and engineering ethics and ethics education, is the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.  The APPE website is at http://www.indiana.edu/~appe/. In APPE, there is a special group that focuses on responsible conduct of research; you can see its mission and membership at http://www.indiana.edu/~appe/rcrec.html.  A leading journal in the field is Science and Engineering Ethics at http://www.springer.com/philosophy/ethics/journal/11948

  • Answer 1 by Kenneth D. Pimple

    This question should be asked of NSF directly, but here's my take on it.

    The short answer is that NSF has explicitly stated that it "does not intend to issue NSF-specified standards" concerning the content or mode of instruction ("Responsible Conduct of Research," Federal Register, vol. 74, no. 160, Aug 20 2009, p. 42127). (More information on this policy can be found below.)

    To me, this indicates that anything goes, including NIH training.

    There are many options other than CITI. The Notice cited above repeatedly mentions two Web sites:

    (1) "Ethics in Science and Engineering National Clearinghouse"
    http://www.umass.edu/sts/digitallibrary/ (the administrative page)
    http://www.ethicslibrary.org/ (the actual clearinghouse)

    (2) "Online ethics Center for Engineering and Research"
    http://www.onlineethics.org/CMS/about/UserGuide/18848.aspx (overview of enhancements for the American COMPETES Act)
    http://www.onlineethics.org/ (home page)

    Here is some more information about the mandate:

    The Congress of the United States decreed, in Section 7009 of the America COMPETES Act ((42 U.S.C. 1862o-1), that institutions applying for NSF funding must have a plan to provide "training and oversight" in the "responsible and ethical conduct of research."

    The final rule can be found in HTML format at

    and in .PDF format at

    NSFs implementation plan is as follows:

    "Effective January 4, 2010, NSF will require that, at the time of proposal submission to NSF, a proposing institution's Authorized Organizational Representative certify that the institution has a plan to provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers who will be supported by NSF to conduct research. While training plans are not required to be included in proposals submitted to NSF, institutions are advised that they are subject to review upon request. NSF will formally implement the new RCR requirement via an update to the NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG). It is anticipated that the revisions to the PAPPG will be issued on October 1, 2009. NSF also will modify its standard award conditions to clearly stipulate that institutions are responsible for verifying that undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers supported by NSF to conduct research have received RCR training. In addition, NSF will support the development of an on-line RCR resource containing research findings, pedagogical materials, and promising practices regarding RCR in science and engineering. The development and evolution of the ongoing online RCR resource will be informed by the research communities that NSF supports, and it will serve as a living resource of multimedia materials that may be used to train current and future generations of scientists and engineers in RCR." ("Responsible Conduct of Research," Federal Register, vol. 74, no. 160, Aug 20 2009, p. 42126)

    About suggested training:

    "NSF does not intend to issue NSF-specified standards and recognizes that training needs may vary depending on specific circumstances of research or the needs of students intending to pursue careers in a variety of science and engineering settings after completing their education. Therefore, it is the responsibility of each institution to determine both the content and the delivery method for the training that will meet the institution's particular needs for RCR training in all areas at that institution for which NSF provides support." ("Responsible Conduct of Research," Federal Register, vol. 74, no. 160, Aug 20 2009, p. 42127)


    Answer 2 by Jason Borenstein

    Yes, there are many other training programs available.  Two good starting points for finding materials are the Council of Graduate Schools' Scholarly Integrity website (http://www.scholarlyintegrity.org/ ) and the Office of Research Integrity's Educational Resources website (http://ori.dhhs.gov/education/rcr_resources.shtml ).  Regarding using NIH training program for the NSF requirements, I would say it depends in part on the types of researchers that you are trying to train.  Although there is overlap regarding what all researchers need to know about RCR (authorship, data management, research misconduct, etc.), the NIH training program primarily focuses on ethical issues relating to biomedical research.  Since many of the researchers NSF funds are outside of the biomedical realm (computer science, chemistry, atmospheric sciences, etc.), you may want to find materials more specifically tailored to their respective fields.

  • This is a good question, but a complex one. In general, I'd say that Fred Cuny's basic approach includes trying to be prepared to act quickly and effectively before a disaster strikes. The problem is that it seems they we are so often taken by surprise.  In the case of Katrina, hindsight might have told us that the levees put the area at high risk for bad things if they don't hold. And, it seems to me, there were engineers who had issued warnings about their inadequacy. Still, was anyone in a good position to anticipate the magnitude of the disaster that could result from their failure? 

    Well, suppose that, realistically, we should always expect that sometime or other, some way or other, we will be taken by surprise in disastrous ways--even with our best efforts to take preventive measures. Once disaster strikes, Cuny would say that engineers will be needed. His book on disaster relief (Oxfam/Oxford) focuses mainly on how best to help after disaster strikes. This, he says, requires one to figure out both how to provide assistance & knowledge of what will really count as (long-term) assistance. This latter knowledge, he says, requires knowing how those who are victims see things, what they will be able to do for themselves once the rescuers leave, and so on. For Cuny, quick fixes are like bandaids--something that may be needed in the short run (to keep the bleeding under control). But Cuny was interested in long-term fixes. An understanding of local needs, abilities, etc. is something that one could try to acquire well before disaster strikes. This is because the understanding that is needed is not just of rescue tactics, but of what a community needs when things are going well (after the rescuers have left). 

    I can't do justice to what Cuny had in mind in short space (after all, he wrote an entire book on this). But it seems that, ideally, good rescue work after disaster strikes requires leadership that is well informed about the life conditions (past, present, and future) of those who might be victimized by disasters (a disproportionate number of whom, unfortunately, typically are already living in poverty, neglect, or in oppressive circumstances). In any case, more than specialized engineering knowledge is needed & there needs to be a readiness to learn about these other matters of importance (as it is unlikely that even someone as conscientious as Cuny would have all the needed knowledge ready-to-hand). Formal, interdisciplinary education may well have a role to play here.

    So, what kind of "corporate backing" might be most useful in light of Cuny's approach? Not money for bandaids only, he might have said. Money for educational programs designed to prepare engineers to do effective disaster relief work as engineers might be a good investment. Cuny and his disaster relief agency should not be the exception (as they have been perceived by many, including themselves, to be); they should be more commonplace in the engineering professions. The corporate challenge, then, could be to encourage and support engineering programs that can be expected to give us more engineers who will be ready and able to respond constructively to disasters like Katrina. At the same time, this sort of program could focus on the need for preventive measures, or at least measures likely to reduce the impact of Katrina-like disasters. 

    I hope these comments are at least a little bit helpful, belated and broad as they are.

  • Answer 1 by S. Raghavan

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “parameters”, but I can tell you that this forum can be a little tricky to manage. You need to have someone at least somewhat familiar with the field who has the time to serve as a moderator. That person will need to be able to solicit responses from appropriate people. We’ve also wondered from time to time whether this format is really appropriate for our audience. It doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and we’ve seen similar forums on other sites that also seem to be unused. To be honest, we are still trying to work out the best format and place for this forum on the site and would welcome any feedback. I will see if I can get some feedback on this for you from others used to running online forums. 

    Answer 2 by Caroline Whitbeck
    I guess the main issue is screening inappropriate postings (especially rants and potential liable). Noticing the difference between the use of the OEC ethics Helpline and the Ethics Case Discussions, I observe that people are much less willing to share problems about research ethics, even when they control the level of detail.
Ask a Question:
Required field
Enter the code shown: (only upper case)

Ask a Question:
Required field
Enter the code shown: (only upper case)