The New Engineer

Citation: This was article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Australian engineers not alone in low public profile', Engineers Australia, April 1998, p. 64.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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After Martin Bryant drove into Port Arthur and methodically shot dead 35 people the Federal Government declared its intentions to introduce extra gun controls. However, when IEAust president, Tom Connor made a statement supporting the government's intentions, he raised more than just a debate about gun control amongst Australian engineers.

The issue of concern was whether the Institution should get involved in political debates. The president's statement was part of a deliberate Institution policy of taking part in public debates so as to raise the profile of engineering in Australia. The reason? Engineering has an image problem. The Institution's surveys have shown that the public have little idea of what engineers do. They have found that school students tend to think of engineering as being a job concerned with objects and gadgets rather than people. Also the community doesn't really have much idea of what engineers do beyond being involved in construction of machines and buildings.

At the same time surveys of members show that they want the Institution to raise community awareness of the engineering profession and improve its status and public profile. The Institution believes that a higher profile can be achieved by engineers becoming involved in political debates. According to Chief Executive, John Webster, members want "a strong and consistent public voice at national and regional level."

The problem of image and status of the engineering profession is not peculiar to Australia. In Britain engineering is "seen as dirty, boring, unfulfilling and financially unrewarding," says Robert Payne an engineer at the Polytechnic of Wales. British engineer, K. Strauss, has suggested that the engineer is "seen as a soulless apparatchik, building ever taller, slicker, quicker, more coldly efficient devices that few want and that fewer can afford, which from time to time go hideously wrong." Over the past two decades various official inquiries have been made into the decline in status of the British engineer since the glory days of the early 19th Century when engineers were the heroes of poetry and novels.

Part of the reason that the community is ignorant of engineering is that engineers do not have much of a public profile in their own right, only speaking publicly as employee representatives of government agencies or private firms. They tend not to be politically active as individuals. Norman Augustine, in an award acceptance speech at the National Academy of Engineering in the US referred to engineering as "the stealth profession, the silent occupation" because of engineers' unwillingness to speak publicly about engineering issues.

IEAust policy now "encourages its members to comment on public issues and contribute to national debates. Such interaction with the community is necessary to improve the general understanding of the role of engineering and to ensure that the engineering viewpoint is considered by the nation's decision-makers."

Similarly the Association of Professional Engineers and Professional Geoscientists in Newfoundland, Canada has strongly supported a leadership role for Canadian engineers which involves speaking out on "engineering related regional, national and international issues." It believes that this will "contribute to public understanding, foster an appreciation of the value of engineering and help society make quality decisions on engineering related matters."

Writing in the US magazine Public Utilities Fortnightly Corbin McNeill Jr, president of the Philadelphia Electric Company, claimed that "engineers have in many instances been stymied in building needed projects because of their inability to confront political issues." He hopes engineering education can be reformed so that engineers become "political leaders on critical and controversial issues." McNeill's assumption that engineers will generally support such projects suggests one of the key difficulties that the Australian Institution will face in its new profile-raising policy.

A major complication with professional societies making public statements in the political arena is the lack of consensus amongst a profession as diverse as engineering about what views should be expressed. The objections to the public statements by Connor on gun control came not only from those who objected to the making of political statements but also to the stance he was taking on gun control. These tensions mean that the road to a high public profile will not be an easy one.