Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Oil and the Liberal Arts

The editorial page of the June 7, 2010 issue of Engineering News-Record (ENR) has the headline - - The Gulf Oil-Spill Disaster Is Engineering’s Shame. Blunt and to the point - - “Blame engineers for some of the mess . . .” The editorial states:

The whole matter is complicated by fragmented decision-making within firms and among companies. Yet the very definition of engineering as a profession involves an obligation to the greater good of society. The profession prides itself on civic virtue and requires individuals to have a functioning conscience.

The Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service recently held hearings on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in New Orleans. As reported in The New York Times (June 6, 2010 - - At Issue in Gulf: Who Was in Charge?) is an exchange with the rig’s captain, Curt R. Kuchta:

“It’s pretty well understood amongst the crew who’s in charge.” He said.

“How do they know that?” a Coast Guard investigator asked.

“I guess I don’t know,” Captain Kuchta said. “But it’s pretty well - - everyone knows.”

Looking annoyed, Capt. Hung Hguyen of the Coast Guard, one of the chief federal investigators shook his head. The exchange confirmed an observation he had made earlier in the day at the hearings.

“A lot of activities seem not very tightly coordinated in the way that would make me comfortable,” he said. “Maybe that’s just the way of business out there.”

From Katrina to Deepwater to Challenger - - our way of “business out there” needs to fundamentally change, and change quickly. In the same New York Times article, Tad W. Patzek, chairman of the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin, has analyzed reports of what led to the explosion. “It’s a very complex operation in which the human element has not aligned with the complexity of the system,” - - that observation applies to Katrina, Challenger, and to the ongoing gulf response efforts - - it applies to a whole host of engineering endeavors and misadventures.

Math, science, design - - no one is ever going to challenge and dispute the need for engineering depth. Additional engineering depth and a greater understanding of risk and uncertainty might have been a little more helpful in recognizing the dangers and risks in drilling beneath 5,000 feet of seawater. But engineering depth alone is not the only clear answer. This is a fundamental problem marked by a lack of intellectual breadth. It is the point where our complex technical world interfaces with the world of human experience - - with all its goodness and all its flaws. It is the world where some stochastic differential equation defining risk and uncertainty collides into a world of Shakespeare on the deck of a drill rig or the bank of a levee.

In this Shakespearian world of engineers, from BP, Transocean and Halliburton - - all operating with competing goals, interests, pressures, and ethics. It is a world of poor communication, it is no communication - - and when events turn into a national televised reality show - - it is too much communication. It is a world of poor regulatory oversight, it is corrupt regulatory oversight - - it is discarding the principles of ethical behavior and totally ignoring what it means to be a virtuous member of society. It is a world of increasing technological complexity and societal demands bounded by 24/7 media coverage and a political aristocracy with limited or no practical knowledge of engineering, science, and technology.

It is thinking that all the answers are in a Statics book - - that the world is a function of force diagrams and vectors. It is engineers thinking that management, leadership, communication skills, critical thinking skills and the attributes that define virtue - - those are for others. It is the narrowness of engineering as a product of corporate desires versus the expansiveness of engineering as a learned profession.

We need to change - - and we need to change quickly. We need to get much better at the interface between technology and society. We need to get better at the people parts of the business - - the parts defined and measured by the elements in a liberal education that enhance the interchange between engineering and society. We need to have a firmer understanding of the humanities, arts, and social sciences - - the parts that help us define who and what we are as a society.

Yes, it’s about drilling mud, cement and blowout preventers. But the technology is never going to be 100% risk free - - that is where the people parts, the leadership parts, and critical thinking parts all come into play and provide a dominate force. It is standing on the deck of a drill rig in the middle of the ocean with 20 other individuals from six different companies - - where you understand the worlds of Manning and Euler, but you also understand Hamlet and the Shakespearian world of complex decision making.

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