Negligence, Risk and the Professional Debate Over
Responsibility for Design
The Implicit Social Contract Between Engineers and Society
Engineering is a form of social experimentation. As with every experiment, there is a risk of negative
consequences as well as positive ones. We need only examine the way the quality and structure of life has
changed over recent decades with the arrival of such phenomena as high-speed computers, new composite
materials, new modes of high-speed transportation, and new advances in bio-engineering to appreciate the
potential impact on society of technological change. Unfortunately, such advances are not always accompanied
by unalloyed blessings, and we must deal with the possible side effects. We must, for example, consider our
needs for protection against invasion of privacy to easily-accessible computerized records, or our needs for
protection from the many drunken drivers who cause over 20,000 deaths per year.
As engineers test designs for ever-increasing speeds, loads, capacities and the like, they must always remember
their larger societal obligation: protecting the public welfare. After all, the public has provided engineers,
through the tax base, with an educational opportunity, and, through legislation, with the means for licensing and
regulating themselves. In return, engineers have a responsibility for protecting the safety and well-being of the
public in all of their design efforts. This is part of the implicit social contract all engineers agree to when they
accept admission to an engineering college.
The Issue of Public Risk and Informed Consent
As technology advances, risks are unavoidable. Thus, the issues of risk and decision making confront all
engineering professionals. Recognizing there will always be some measure of risk associated with engineering
design, how do engineers know when those risks outweigh the possible benefits gained from their work? How
do they make informed decisions?
Engineering, more than any other profession, involves social experimentation. Often one engineer's decision
affects the safety of countless lives. It is, therefore, important that engineers constantly remember that their first
obligation is to ensure the public's safety. This is a difficult assignment, for engineers are not typically
autonomous professionals. Most of them work for salaries within a structured environment where budgets,
schedules and multiple projects are important factors in the decision-making process.
The decision-making process is often complicated by the fact that most engineers have multiple responsibilities
attached to their job descriptions. They are responsible for actual engineering practice (including research,
development and design), for making proposals and writing reports, for managing projects and personnel, and
often for sales and client liaison. In other words, engineers, by the very nature of their professional stature both
outside and inside the corporate structure, cannot work in a vacuum. Graduation is not a license to merely tinker