The Role of Nuclear Engineers in Society, by Eva Uribe, University of California, Berkeley

What is the role of nuclear engineers in society? As a scientist, and not an engineer, the summer school made me think about the relationship between science and engineering, and how both interact with society. During the conference, one of my colleagues, an engineer, made the observation that science is about discovery, while engineering is about optimization. Engineers make the knowledge of science useful to others through optimization of that knowledge to specific problems. The National Society of Professional Engineers' Code of Ethics makes engineers responsible first to society: “Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare” (Preamble, emphasis added). The American Chemical Society also published a Chemical Professionals Code of Conduct, which establishes a primary responsibility to the public: “Chemical professionals have a responsibility to serve the public interest and safety and to further advance the knowledge of science.”

While the engineering ethical code speaks of “services” to the public, the ACS code encourages scientists to “advance the knowledge of science.” During the summer school, many asked the question how we could justify nuclear energy outside of the cost/benefit paradigm used by engineers to decide which problems to solve and how to solve them. My initial reaction was to justify nuclear energy based on the progress of science and the general advancement of knowledge. Very generally speaking, my opinion is that we should learn more about splitting the atom not only so that we may better control it, but also because this process is fundamental to how the universe works, and we as inquisitive beings should want to know how everything works. This kind of pursuit of knowledge allows scientists to justify research that others may consider unethical or immoral, such as embryonic stem cell research or even human cloning. During the conference, I began to understand that the engineering profession cannot be so easily isolated from public interests, even in the name of advancing knowledge, because its central creed is to serve the public.

The debate lies in the form that this service shall take, a dilemma not exclusive to engineering, but rather common to all professions. What happens when the experts and the public disagree about what is best for society? Who should decide? The educated minority, or the majority? James Madison, one of the founders of the United States Constitution, wrote about this dilemma in Federalist Paper #10. Madison and many of his contemporaries believed that a strict democracy would be very dangerous, because it would allow the majority to suppress the rights of the minority simply by force of numbers. To combat such a tendency in government, they sought to found not a democracy, but a republic, in which elected representatives of the people govern the nation, rather than the people directly. His words, then spoken about political representatives, are also relevant to nuclear engineering professionals today when it comes to nuclear energy policy. He argues that representative government “refines and enlarges the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations … it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves” (Federalist Paper #10). A representative must often look beyond local interests and seek to serve broader and deeper interests. But a representative is also directly responsible to the public. Engineers may be considered representatives of the public to the progress of technology. Scientists unveil what is known and what may be known, and engineers decide how this knowledge can be incorporated into people's daily lives. As representatives of the people, engineers are also directly responsible to them. But unlike politicians, who risk losing votes if they displease the public, engineers have much more at stake: the credibility of the profession, the usefulness of scientific progression, and the inquisitiveness of humankind. This is why their dedication to honesty, openness, and education is so important.

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