NSPE Today: Outlook
BY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR MARK GOLDEN
There was a time when, even if they didn’t understand the scope and nature of professional licensure, the general public understood it was important that engineers were competent, ethical, and accountable. When they sent their children to school, entered an elevator, or crossed a bridge, they understood the importance. They felt they could trust that there was a system in place to ensure that the person they never met who designed the gas utilities into the school, designed the control system and mechanics in the elevator, and designed that bridge had the right education, experience, and accountability to protect the public from harm.
And more than managing risk and protecting them from harm, engineers have made possible the long list of life-changing improvements to our quality of life in the last century. From electrification to the automobile, airplane, and space travel; from water supply and distribution to radio, television, and computers; from agricultural mechanization to air conditioning, the amazing talents of engineers have driven society’s advancement.
In 1907, when the licensing of professional engineers began as a way to protect the public, the country had just seen its first office building designed for air-conditioning and Ford would introduce the Model T the following year. Water rights and public water system standards were nonexistent. Roads and bridges perfectly adequate to handle horse-drawn traffic were ill-suited to carry automobile traffic. Manned flight was still a wild idea of little direct relevance to the general public in their everyday lives. Licensing laws were a rudimentary first attempt by a developing country to deal with the challenges and the opportunities of industrialization, urbanization, and technology, while protecting the public.
Today, engineering licensure is unquestionably better than it was in 1907, when Wyoming granted Charles Bellamy with the first PE license. Licensure has advanced, become more systematic, more consistent. It has become so ubiquitous and effective that the general public can, and does, take it for granted, trusting that someone is looking out for their interests.
But for all their contributions to the quality of life, new technological and engineering wonders also, unintentionally but inevitably, create new risks on an equally massive scale. With the advance of the automobile came pedestrian and traffic accidents and deaths in the hundreds of thousands. With air flight came airplane crashes. With enhanced utility distribution came pipeline explosions.
No, professional licensure didn’t (and doesn’t) provide absolute protections or guarantees against failures and harm, whether to an individual or on a grand scale. But can anyone doubt things would be far worse if there wasn’t a licensing system to ensure that engineering is in the hands of competent professionals who understand their obligation to improve and protect the public health, safety, and welfare?
In recent years, however, the public attitude toward professional licensure has changed.
There is a new documentary now playing on HBO about the failed medical technology company Theranos. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley isn’t about professional engineering, but it raises an important question: When did the public become the testing ground for the totally unregulated trials of new technology?
“The mantra in Silicon Valley is ‘Move fast, break things,’ and that is really dangerous when people’s lives are in the balance,” observes one of those interviewed in the documentary.
Another added: “Silicon Valley is really good at making a web-based email client, really great at making a chat app with emojis on it. But Silicon Valley is trying to do things where people’s lives are on the line—trying to make autonomous vehicles, trying to make medical devices—they’re trying to do these things that if you don’t do it right, quite frankly, people can die. You need to approach it with a different lens. The problem is, when you’re developing the future, you don’t know what the impact is going to be because no one has seen this before, and the testing ground is often just the general public.” And we have all just quietly accepted that as part of progress.
Closer to home, the attitude of some powerful politicians has shifted from viewing licensure as a tool for public protection to seeing it as an innovation-stifling barrier to economic and employment opportunity. (See my column, “A Tale of Two Paradigms,” September/October 2018).
We need to change the conversation. Responsible professional licensure is needed today, more than ever. The world is more complicated than in the “simpler” times when licensure was introduced and developed. Licensure has done well as it has evolved and grown, but have we done enough? Responsibility to both advance the public’s health, safety, and welfare and reduce the potential for harm, means evolving even further. Think of it as a system (PE 2.0, if you will) that is better and stronger, and yes, even more aware of its responsibility to avoid unnecessary interference with innovation and economic opportunity.
We know that risk can’t be avoided, and accidents will happen; however, there is a path to better public safety, if we want to take it. Change is hard, but we can do better in the next 100 years. It’s our grand challenge.