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Ethics and technology: ASU seminar to examine future of engineering

ASU professor Joseph R. Herkert
February 28, 2014

How do we provide enough energy for all without ruining our environment? How do we make advances in communication technology while effectively addressing privacy concerns? How do we build our cities and communities in ways that provide equitable services to all populations?

Overcoming technical problems are not the only challenges in developing engineering solutions that will sustain societies. The interplay of human factors, cultures and ideologies with the development of societal standards and moral principles directly impacts whether and how technologies will be used, who will benefit and who may be disadvantaged.

“While there has been a lot of attention focused on new skills and challenges for engineers and engineering, leaders in the profession pay relatively less attention to what changes in technology and society mean for the social and ethical responsibilities for engineers,” says Joseph R. Herkert, Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology in the School of Letters and Sciences and the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at ASU.

Examining ethical questions and developing approaches for teaching future engineers to address ethical considerations is the topic of a seminar by Herkert, on March 4. He has been teaching engineering ethics and science, technology and society courses for more than twenty-five years and was recently elected a fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The seminar is part of consortium's breakfast seminar series, New Tools for Science Policy, held in Washington, D.C.

The presentation will:

• provide a critique of reports from the National Academy of Engineering (especially the Grand Challenges) and efforts of engineering educators and professional engineering societies in the wake of the reports

• suggest a more dynamic characterization of the new engineer

• suggest approaches for formulating challenges for engineering that more effectively incorporate the social and ethical responsibilities of engineers and the engineering profession (in particular, the presentation will focus on developments in macroethics, social sustainability and the unique challenges of emerging technologies)

Herkert is co-director of a collaborative project on energy ethics and the social dimensions of energy transitions with the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and the National Academy of Engineering. Clark Miller, associate director of the consoritum, worked with Herkert on the project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation to develop a model that examines the plausibility of energy options from ethical, technological and social aspects.

“One of the grand challenges confronting engineering in the context of large-scale energy transitions is to recognize and develop approaches to designing socio-technological systems, rather than just technologies,” says Miller.

Ethical considerations should be front and center when making policy decisions that can have negative consequences for specific populations.

"Having failed to stem carbon emissions in rich countries or in rapidly industrializing ones, policymakers have focused their attention on the only remaining target: poor countries that do not emit much carbon to begin with," said Dan Sarewitz, co-director of the consortium, and Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado, in a recent opinion piece in Financial Times. “We in the rich world have chosen economic growth over emissions reductions. It is cruelly hypocritical of us to prevent poor countries from growing, too.”

A clash of priorities is also evidenced in recent criticism of the mayor of San Francisco, who is under fire for policies housing advocates claim benefit the "technology elite" but make life difficult for the middle- and lower-income sectors.

“He’s privileging a certain group of people, tech, over the rest of the city,” said an advocate quoted in the New York Times.

As Rider Foley, a consortium postdoctoral scholar recently pointed out, “Technology doesn’t just have costs and benefits. It’s the values that people place on the technology that are at the center of these scenarios.” 

Foley and Darren Petrucci, architect and professor in The Design School, presented a seminar in the New Tools for Science Policy series on using visualization scenarios to envision the effects of urban development decisions.

Our world is bounding ahead with rapid advances in countless areas of scientific inquiry and development. Scientists and policymakers must have the commitment and the means to consider ethical implications of the technological steps we choose to take.

“As many scholars and ethicists have noted, social progress should be the ends, and technology should be the means. If we value technological progress in its own right (which we often do), we may well lose sight of social ends such as justice and human welfare,” says Herkert.

Find additional seminars and recordings of past sessions on the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes website.

The New Tools for Science Policy seminars are free and held at the ASU Washington Center, 1834 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, D.C., from 8:30-10:30 a.m. (breakfast provided). The presentation begins promptly at 9 a.m. Seating is limited. To RSVP, send an email to with the date of the seminar and identifying information.

Marissa Huth,
communications specialist