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How Do You Teach Engineers About Ethics and Politics?

April 10, 2013

I’m tired. It was a long day.

In the morning, we defined energy/engineering ethics and discussed the difference between macro and micro ethics (with Rachelle Hollander and Joe Herkert). A lot of useful frameworks were brought up for how to talk about and frame ethical issues in engineering.

In the afternoon, we traveled to the ASU Solar Power Lab for a GISER Workshop on “Social and Technical Barriers and Opportunities to Terrawatt Solar”. It was a fascinating workshop that involved touring a PV cell manufacturing lab (where I broke a sheet of multicrystalline silicon … oops) and pitting engineers vs. social scientists in framing the issues. The main point was that we cannot black box the technology or the politics involved in implementing the technology on a large scale. We don’t just need technical innovation, but also institutional innovation to accommodate change. At the end, we did an exercise to demonstrate the difficulty of finding policy solutions. We had 6 policy options to choose from:

  1. Remove all fossil fuel subsidies [5]
  2. Increase policy incentives (such as rebates) for renewables [5]
  3. Remove all energy subsidies [5]
  4. Implement a carbon tax [13]
  5. Increase investment in solar R&D [3]
  6. Create program to encourage voluntary adoption of renewables by utilities [0]

Everyone had to choose their favorite policy – the numbers in brackets show how many people chose each policy. In our groups, we had to make our case for our policy. I was part of the carbon tax group. Then each group could counter another policy. We ran out of time, but the next option would have been to start creating coalitions to come to some consensus. As one person noted, it’s interesting that the carbon tax was the most popular option – however, you’ll notice that most people (18) were anti-carbon tax, but because they didn’t all agree on what should be done, that position was fractured. As an engineer, I thought it was an incredibly useful exercise for gaining insight into how the political process works. It is dynamic and incredibly dependent on context.

Most interestingly, at the end of the workshop, one of the lead solar engineers asked the “policy people” a question – “So if solar has worked in other places like Germany, why can’t it work here? They did it, so why can’t we do it?” This idea of context-dependency – that solar happened in those places because it could – hadn’t quite sunk in. It’s interesting to think more broadly about how to explain the political process to engineers.

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