Grimson: We must change mindset from one of ‘opposing’ to one of ‘choosing the best option’
29 September 2015
Engineers Ireland president Bill Grimson stated in his presidential address on September 23 that we all need to change our way of thinking when it comes to many of the great engineering challenges of life such as deciding upon alternative sources of renewable energy. “We can’t do nothing. When somebody says ‘we don’t want wind power’, fine, well how do you want your energy?” the president told the 100-strong audience.
We have to change our mindset, from one that merely ‘opposes’ to one that ‘chooses’ the best option from an available selection, he added. “We’re getting caught up in debating the individual issue of wind power whereas we should be discussing the wider issue of energy.”
Among a number of other nuggets in his hour-long presidential address, Grimson said engineers should engage more proactively: “We are trusted, but we’re worried we’ll lose trust so we’re guarded.” He also said some of the migrants fleeing Sub-Saharan Africa were doing so due to a lack of basic resources such as water and touched on the recent controversy in this country by stating: “I am embarrassed by the view in Ireland over water – we’re so lucky.”
The president also mentioned how a “Northern Protestant friend” recommended that he read Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, which he did and which he found fascinating. “The reason we should reflect on this encyclical is that it addresses the complex question of our stewardship of Earth, our home for the foreseeable future.
“In referring specifically to diversity the encyclical states ‘we must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly’.”
With regard to lobbying, Grimson again gave the example of energy and said that each energy source “is not without significant undesirable attributes”, and that “very strong and very different lobby groups exist opposing the utilisation of each source” but it is also true to say that “each of us unencumbered with more general or holistic considerations, either would support or have sympathy with each lobby group.
“But we have a dilemma: unless we are prepared to rethink how we wish to live our lives, we will continue to need energy … utilising one or more sources that in isolation we would prefer not to deploy. And as Samuel Florman would put it, ‘professionals have an obligation to lead, but they also have a duty to serve’. To get the right balance between leading and serving is certainly difficult and it requires a climate of sustained dialogue and trust. But, as professionals, are we addressing this challenge?”
The president began with two quotes: Immanuel Kant’s “Science is organised knowledge. Wisdom is organised life.” And Albert Einstein’s “Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.” He then recommended Samuel Florman’s book ‘The Existential Pleasures of Engineering’. Grimson said: “Florman’s position is that ‘professionals have an obligation to lead, but they also have a duty to serve’. And ‘having been served, society then has no right to blame the professionals for its own shortsightedness’.
“50 years ago, ICEI president (1965) Richard Cross, in his presidential address, stated that ‘the story of the progress of civilisation is in effect the story of the development of engineering and of the organised national efforts of a dedicated profession’. How is this progress viewed? Well, on the one side is Prof Pangloss and ‘Tout est pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes possibles’ or ‘all is for the best’ in the ‘best of all possible worlds’. While on the other extreme things couldn’t be much worse. As Leonard Cohen puts it: ‘I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.’
“So, depending on your viewpoint, ‘It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity …’ with apologies to Charles Dickens from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
“It is probably a conceit to imagine that we live at a special time … but it is hard to resist the thought that in fact we do, especially as we are now entering the Anthropocene (a proposed term for the present geological epoch during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment) epoch.”
Selected observations with relevance to engineering
“Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe laid out his goals for the G7 summit on June 7-8, 2015, in Schloss Elmau as:
- Climate change.
- Quality infrastructure. To sustain high-quality growth that can enhance wellbeing now and in the future, then developing countries will need high-quality infrastructure in place.
- Health and medicine.
“And Pope Francis touches on technological developments in ‘Laudato Si’. It states ‘We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nano-technologies. Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications? How could we not acknowledge the work of many scientists and engineers who have provided alternatives to make development sustainable?’
“But, the encyclical goes on to state that ‘ … never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used’.”
Three related sets of challenges in engineering
They are technical, societal and educational and they are all inextricably interconnected. In terms of technical challenges, as David Balmforth President of the ICE reminded us in his lecture last January, Engineering has in the past made very significant and beneficial contributions to the well-being of people. Think of the great water and sewage schemes in cities.
Current examples of looking to the future (based on current situations) include Engineers Ireland’s Review of Infrastructure in Ireland.
Engineering’s 14 grand challenges
The USA National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Committee on Engineering’s Grand Challenges identified 14 grand challenges and opportunities for engineering during the world’s next few generations. It pointed to engineering or scientific research and innovation that look promising for addressing each challenge as well as suggested currently unmet research needs.
They are listed as:
1. Make solar energy economical;
2. Provide energy from fusion;
3. Provide access to clean water;
4. Reverse-engineer the brain;
5. Advance personalized learning;
6. Develop carbon sequestration methods;
7. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery;
8. Restore and improve urban infrastructure;
9. Advance health informatics;
10. Prevent nuclear terror;
11. Engineer better medicines;
12. Enhance virtual reality;
13. Manage the nitrogen cycle;
14. Secure cyberspace.
In terms of making solar energy economical, Grimson stated that “in general a lack of adequate economic support for renewables development is an obstacle … with some negativity being expressed from within our own engineering community!” With regard to providing energy from fusion, he said that “the science is easy, it’s the engineering that is hard”.
Grimson quoted George Eliot in Middlemarch: ‘It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view’. “There is a fundamental imbalance between the views of society and the perspectives of both the funders and providers of solutions. Groups in society largely address single topics in limited time frames. Funders and solution providers on the other hand need to take long-term and more holistic views. And our democratic system (in reacting to public opinion) is prone to short-termism and choosing heavily comprised solutions,” said the president.
“There is a need for informed consent. Baroness Onora O’Neill (philosopher) considers that informed consent is the key legal instrument of bioethics … this is a sound principle that extends to other domains and activities such as engineering, but it is not without its problems. In general the public need to (a) be properly informed … (b) by those that can be trusted. She has said that we “need to free professionals and the public service to serve the public…to work towards more intelligent forms of accountability…[and] to rethink a media culture in which spreading suspicion has become a routine activity”.
“In addressing societal needs, the interaction between engineering and society is poorly moderated by a climate of misunderstanding – on both sides – and sometimes even a wilful misunderstanding. ‘Unknown knowns’! There is also the CP Snow ‘Two Cultures’ factor at play. Hence the need for dialogue based on trust and respect.
The EU has identified the challenge of having a well-informed society with the publication of a recent report, Science Education for Responsible Citizenship (2015). The challenge is one of both informing society and maintaining trust.
To illustrate the difficulties in addressing this challenge, consider the topical question of energy production: fossil fuels are the backbone of production and there is plenty more left. But do we use it? Fracking has brought economic advantage to the US but it remains controversial. France gets 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy, Ireland’s percentage is zero. Wind power is intrusive on nature and there are network implications.
Wave power systems can attract predatory fish, damaging ecosystems. In Australia, a secret report reveals toxic legacy of coal gasification trials. In terms of solar power, it is seen as unsightly in urban settings. There is huge potential in using low cost/low grade silicon. In terms of hydro, dams have mixed histories.
Points to ponder
- Each of the energy sources mentioned are not without significant undesirable attributes
- Very strong and very different lobby groups exist opposing the utilisation of each source
- The lobby groups, to a large extent, operate in isolation and are independent of each other
- Politicians because of the need to maintain a voting base, and because the lobbying is invariably local, find it almost impossible to challenge any lobbying
- And it has to be admitted, that each of us unencumbered with more general or holistic considerations, either would support or have sympathy with each lobby group.
But we have a dilemma…
- Unless we are prepared to re-think how we wish to live our lives, we will continue to need energy … utilising one or more sources that in isolation we would prefer not to deploy
- To return to Samuel Florman :“professionals have an obligation to lead, but they also have a duty to serve”.
To get the right balance between leading and serving is certainly difficult and it requires a climate of sustained dialogue and trust. As professionals, are we addressing this challenge?
Engineering education challenges
Employability can be defined as ‘a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy’. Professor Mantz Yorke (2004) ‘Employability in Higher Education: what it is – what it is not‘, Higher Education Academy/ESECT.
The USEM model (Knight and Yorke, 2004) outlines employability as four broad and inter-related components:
- Skilful practices (including deployment of skills);
- Efficacy beliefs (including students views of themselves);
- Meta-cognition (including self-awareness and a capacity to reflect on learning).
Among other aspects – an appreciation of the uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of knowledge (Taken from: Using Qualification and Level Descriptors (Updated Sept 2008) ARU.
EUR-ACE accreditation criteria for engineering programmes. The programme outcomes of accredited engineering degree programmes have the following dimensions:
- Knowledge and Understanding;
- Engineering Analysis;
- Engineering Design;
- Engineering Practice;
- Transferable Skills.
Engineers Ireland, for example, has determined that the study of six programme areas is necessary if graduates are to achieve the required programme learning outcomes: mathematics and science; technology; software and information systems; innovation; engineering practice; and social and business context.
Attributes of a global engineer (The Attributes of a Global Engineer Project: Updates, Inputs, Faculty Development Considerations. Stephen Hundley & Lynn Brown. ASEE Int. Forum. June 2013):
- Engineering science fundamentals
- Context in which engineering is practiced
- Curiosity and desire to learn – for life (show initiative, inquire & learn)
- Ethical standards and professionalism
Engineering Science Fundamentals:
- Mathematics (including statistics)
- Physical and life sciences
- Political and socioeconomic sciences
- Information technology – digital competency
- Understanding of design and product processes
- Understanding of product life cycle development
- Effective teamwork/common goals
- Possess a multi-disciplinary, systems perspective
- Maintain focus with multiple project assignments
Context in which engineering is practiced
- Economics/Finances of Projects
- Basic Supplier Management Principles
- Customer and Societal Emotions and Needs
- Cultures, Languages, and Business Norms
- Societal, Economic, and Environmental Impacts of Engineering Decisions
- An International/Global Perspective
- Written (Memos, reports, email, letters, etc.)
- Verbal (Technical & non-technical presentations)
- Foreign Language (Technically fluent in at least two languages)
- Graphic (Design drawings, charts & graphs, presentation and basic brochure design)
- Digital Competency
- Competent at Internet Collaboration and Communication Tools (Web-based meeting tools, team rooms, teleconferencing; file sharing, E-mail)
- Active and Effective Participation in Team Efforts
- A Willingness to Respect the Opinions of Others and Support Team Decisions
- An Acceptable Personal Image and a Positive Personal Attitude
- Treating People with Fairness, Trust, and Respect
- Respect for Diversity
- Courtesy and Respect
- An Eagerness to Help Others
- Self-Confidence to Adapt to Rapid/Continuous/Major Change
- Thinking Both Critically and Creatively – Independently and Cooperatively
Curiosity and Desire to Learn – For Life (Show initiative, Inquire & Learn)
- Seeking Advice and Forming Daily Questions to Discover New Insights.
- Commitment to Quality, Timeliness, and Continuous Improvement
- Understanding Basic Project and Risk Management and Continuous Improvement Concepts (like LEAN+)
Ethical Standards and Professionalism
- Operate in Accordance With Acceptable Business, Societal, and Professional Norms
- Maintain the Highest Level of Integrity, Ethical Behaviour, and Professional Competence
- Understand and Applies Good Personal Judgment
‘The ideal engineer is a composite … He is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist or a writer; but he may use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.’ NW Dougherty, 1955
- As a profession we should engage in identifying, agreeing and reviewing today’s global challenges for engineering and then follow up accordingly.
- We need to be part of and encourage a change of culture in society by which to oppose is replaced by one of collectively choosing the best from a set of options.
- No one educational programme can be expected to provide the learning environment in which its graduates excel in all or most attributes linked to the ideal engineer.
- What is required is greater diversity. Diversity should be valued both in respect of individuals and educational programmes and Accreditation Bodies should consider relaxing their criteria to allow for greater diversity in constructing engineering programmes.
- The soft skills (emotional intelligence, critical thinking …) are in fact hard or difficult to inculcate and need to be developed throughout the formation of the engineer (pre-university, undergraduate, postgraduate and in employment): a life- long challenge!