No Engineering Ethics In China?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 2, 2009 11:13 am

The third speaker in the panel I moderated at the STS conference was Fei Guo from Southeast University in Nanjing, China and the University of Wisconsin-Madison who spoke about The Absense of Engineering Ethics in China and its Solutions: An STS Perspective.

Fei began by explaining there are no engineering ethics in China.  As a sub-discipline, the term specifies the responsibilities of engineers as professionals.  However, most interesting to many of us in the room was hearing about the difference between how engineers are perceived in the U.S. and China.  In Chinese tradition with roots in Confucius philosophy, engineers ‘build‘ rather than ‘design‘ and the profession is largely ignored. Hence, he described an absence of engineering books and courses.

Fei believes that given the modernization of China, engineering ethics must be introduced.  He outlined a model to do so based on the example of the transformation from microethics to macroethics in U.S. engineering and the developments of STS.  His proposal includes:

1) Highlighting engineering studies and practice, demonstrating creative characteristics in engineering

2) Introducing a general curriculum to popularize the multiple images of engineering and building macroethics in engineering education

3) Reforming the Chinese library and publication system, thereby encouraging publication and broader distribution of general engineering works.

While this is not an topic I’m familiar with, it raises some intriguing questions about persistence of S&T fields and definitions in other parts of the world.  Is globalization moving us toward standardization?  Probably.  Does it matter?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Science Workforce

Comments (4)

  1. If engineering is largely ignored, who builds all those booming skyscrapers, bridges and highways in China? Is it mostly foreign engineering?

  2. Interesting. As an aside, what surprised me most at the Great Wall was how precarious the steps are. They’re uneven, sloped, sometimes very narrow. Going up not too bad. However it was terrifying walking down with our baby.

  3. MadScientist

    They’ll change little by little; they need to in order to adapt to commerce with the rest of the world. Personally I don’t think the confucian philosophy has anything to do with controlling engineering credentials, but people who build things build up a reputation today just as their counterparts did 2000 years ago. See so-and-so if you want a really nice house etc; the strength of structures and so on rarely come to mind.

    You can find many people offering non-functional products because many people have the attitude “if it looks right it must be right”. For example, screwdrivers made of chrome-plated copper – they’re long, have a flat blade, and they’re a shiny silver color – what more could you want? Many people have a very poor understanding of material properties and tooling, but this is not necessarily the case with people who have a university degree.

    There are good engineers – they’re just in fairly short supply as in any other part of the globe. I certainly don’t envy their challenge to bring legislation and industry practices up to date though; they’re up against 2000 years or more of bad habits and bosses typically have an imperial attitude to things – the boss is never wrong, no matter how wrong he is.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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