My first response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was, “Some engineer screwed up!” After some thought I realized this may not be true. If someone designed a system to stop the flow of oil in an emergency, said it would work under the conditions a mile below the surface of the Gulf, and then the failsafe system failed, that person is in big trouble. But it could have been many things that caused the greatest oil spill ever. It could be that the equipment wasn’t designed to work under a mile of water, or that the correct procedure for shutting down the flow of oil was not followed, or it could be that warnings that an emergency was likely to happen that would put the entire Gulf ecosystem and the livelihoods of thousands of people were ignored for the sake of getting the job done on schedule and saving BP money. Eventually, I expect the truth will come out.
One of my lab mates while I was studying bioengineering at Penn State had spent some time just out of college working for a defense contractor on the nosecone of the MX missile, a nuclear weapons delivery system. His job was to help figure out how to trigger the nuclear warhead before the missile, going at supersonic speeds, was crushed upon hitting the ground. He said it was a very interesting engineering project, and that he didn’t think about what the device was designed to do. When he did, after a year or so on the project, he decided he couldn’t live with himself if something he worked on were ever used to cause mass destruction. So he switched gears and began studying to do medical research.
On the other hand, one of my classmates at Notre Dame, a metallurgist, has been working for a defense contractor for almost thirty years. I haven’t spoken with him recently, but I imagine he feels okay about his work, and has decided that any use of weapons he helped design or build would be justified and necessary for the defense of the country.
Which one of my classmates is right? I imagine they both are, as long as they think seriously about what they are doing, assent to it, and take responsibility for the work of their hands. Engineers at BP are no different than the other professionals in the company—the accountants, CEOs, marketing people, executive assistants. They all have influence on outcomes. It’s easy to blame the people who handle the money—think Wall Street—but it’s usually not that simple.