When deciding upon a particular project, do not simply consider benefits and costs, but do ask “whose benefits and whose costs?”1

My first job after graduating from materials engineering was in Public Relations. I wanted to communicate with people and not be stuck in a laboratory. I worked for a small consultancy called Central Public Relations and was asked to contribute news stories on technical subjects to different engineering magazines. Sounds innocent enough. However, I had only been working there for a few months when I was asked to write an article about asbestos for a British company who still produced it. I was to discuss all the benefits of the fiber. It is indeed an incredibly strong natural fiber, which was why it was used so much in ceilings and other building materials.

However, during the course of my work I saw the documentary by John Willis, originally made for Yorkshire Television and first shown in July 1982. This documentary ‘Alice a fight for life’ showed the life of Alice Jefferson who worked at an asbestos factory for three months when she was 17. Thirty years later she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Legal battles are still going on but it seemed clear that the company I was supposed to represent, T&N, knew about the problems with asbestos and covered this up for many years so that they could carry on making profit.

I resigned from the PR job without writing the piece. Resigning cost me nothing – I would get another job. It is not always so easy for people to resign. But it is increasingly important for us to ask more questions about the motivations of those we work for and those who fund our research, and make some choices.

In Michael Frayn's play “Copenhagen”2, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg together with Bohr's wife Margrethe, relive a meeting which was purported to have taken place in 1941, when the younger Heisenberg visited his old post doctoral supervisor and mentor Bohr in his home in occupied Denmark. No-one really knows the purpose of the visit but it is the subject of much conjecture and controversy. Did Heisenberg go there to try to get Bohr to agree to a pledge of non-action as they were two of the world's most important atomic physicists and if they decided not to create the bomb they could influence their teams also? Or did he go there to learn how to make the bomb as Germany was falling behind in the research? The choices made on that day in 1941 potentially influenced the outcome of the war. Whether or not that meeting was influential, the point is well made. Individual scientists and engineers can make a difference, for good or for bad.

For many years, I had, like many other engineers, made the assumption that all materials engineering, unless it was for weapons research or involving unethical decisions as in the above case, was for the public good. I hadn't seen the harm that certain technologies or manufacturing methods could facilitate. I didn't really understand the cost to the environment or to the factory worker whose job had just been lost through increased automation, designed only to make more products at a faster rate, to increase the profit margin, to enhance what? I had joined the machine, the culture of compliance where the “values of technology have so permeated the public mind that all too frequently what is efficient is seen as the right thing to do”3.

Ursula Franklin, a Canadian metallurgist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, tells us in her “Real World of Technology”3 that she has made various choices in her own career, such as not to work on projects related to atomic energy because she finds it “unforgiving” and “unforgivable”. She claims she would work on nuclear waste disposal but only after Canada has agreed to discontinue building nuclear reactors. Franklin asks us, when deciding upon a particular project, not to simply consider benefits and costs but to ask “whose benefits and whose costs?”

We do have a choice about who we give our skills to and share our knowledge with. We have a choice about who we help to live better lives and whether to discover before its too late, the potential impact of what we create.

1 Baillie, C., and Catalano, G., Engineering and Society: working towards social justice, Morgan and Claypool, forthcoming 2009.


2 Frayn, M., Copenhagen, Anchor Books 1998.


3 U. Franklin, The Real World of technology, House of Anansi Press (1990).