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Why Engineers Must Try to Save the World

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Scientists have always been divided about whether or not to save the world. Who can blame them? When physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first test of an atomic bomb, his pride over creating an inconceivably powerful energy source was immediately overshadowed by a brooding awareness that scientific knowledge can bring fantastic destruction as well as glorious salvation. Quoting Vishnu from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, Oppenheimer observed, "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Ever since Oppenheimer’s reveries in the deserts of New Mexico 65 years ago, scientists have been more sophisticated in their embrace of the messianic impulse. They are now more restrained in their drive to change the world. Even as the scientist as messiah emerged in the 20th century as a new social type, so too did the mirror opposite:
the "mad" scientist who, overreaching in pursuit of power, lays waste to his own kind. So the messianic impulse among scientists has coevolved with a darker, murkier image of the scientist who wittingly or unwittingly launches a cataclysm.
As Oppenheimer found during his stewardship of the Manhattan Project, sobriety must leaven the drunken glee that arises from the experience of monumental discovery. In the popular mind, unalloyed goodness is no longer the signature of science. Today, Science with a capital S wears a Janus face: For every celebration of a signal scientific advance, there’s a festival of fretting over the unintended consequences of new knowledge and its application.
No commitment to sobriety, however nuanced, can ever fully stifle the messianic impulse, which is deeply rooted in the Western tradition of discovery. Saving the planet, in an era of multitudinous threats, is the new mantra. Sustainability is fervently preached as an ideal for technoscience and society both. The new saviors, however, are not solely drawn from the ranks of science. Increasingly, professional engineers are considered among the chosen actors in the great drama of human civilization’s preservation.
I choose to call engineers a profession because the very social categorization implies a responsiveness to human needs and norms that physical scientists from various disciplines at times appear to lack (or, more precisely, to transcend). Engineers, by contrast, resemble lawyers and physicians. In the classic formulation of Don K. Price, writing in his book The Scientific Estate (Harvard University Press, 1965), from which my series takes its name:
"Engineering, medicine, and law, in different ways, have the function of taking the applications of science (or other systematic knowledge) and applying them to the concrete and practical affairs of men. That is not only their function; it is their purpose. Science can insist on ignoring questions of purpose in order to be objective and precise; the professions cannot. So they sometimes take their purposes from generally accepted values….Or the professions take their purposes from the demands of their customers or employers, as an engineer does when he designs a bridge or an automobile."
Price was right about a lot, but wrong that scientists can ignore questions of purpose any more than they can pretend to be blind to the outcomes of their investigations. Neither do "the professions" take abstract knowledge and forge out of these abstractions concrete solutions to practical problems. We all now exist on a technoscientific continuum that mocks routine 20th-century distinctions. Yet Price, writing in the 1960s, was supremely wise in recognizing that a set of urgent human problems required the attentions of engineers working in a manner that delivers, in his shrewd term, "professional competence."
Competence is crucial. After all, the human response to the planet’s seemingly difficult situation must, above all, work. Adaptations and interventions that forestall or remedy or extinguish the ultimate lethal threats, such as catastrophic climate change, an exotic pandemic, or a mysterious collapse in large-scale agriculture can always be moral or immoral, normative or not, sublime or ugly, inspirational or dour. But adaptations and interventions aimed at saving the world as we know it, or want it to be, must work. Pragmatism rules. Or if failure is an essential experience, even our technoscientific failures must reflect the core competence that the practice of engineering holds in the highest of regards.
Before I address the logic of a "messianic impulse" among engineers, let me merely note in passing that scientists face radical challenges from both the Left and the Right—a political challenge that constrains even those few scientists who would roundly declare their intentions of saving the world through their work. The Left compulsively concentrates on the unintended consequences of science: the bad, the ugly. The Right resents and resists any claim by science as such to remedy the existential flaws in the human personality and the social experience. And to save the world, without accessing the supernatural, seems to the religious Right to be a kind of fatal hubris that obscures an even deeper epistemological blindness.
No such clear polarization exists on the role of engineering in the prevention of human self-destruction. In large measure, engineers are exempt from the paralyzing effects of political polarization because the language and expectations of "professionalism" both liberate and constrain their expertise in ways that undercut political polarization and improve the chances of forging a durable marriage between reason and faith, technique and ethics.
In short, the circumstances of our fragile, peculiar time favor grand interventions from engineers. These interventions are consistent with the worthy and ambitious initiatives proposed by the National Academy of Engineering. But while most "prizes" and "challenges" encourage the pursuit of well-defined breakthroughs, "saving the planet" will require assembling many well-defined breakthroughs into technological systems that deliver durable solutions to urgent problems. These problems increasingly require the talents of engineers of various sorts, working in tandem with scientists at a minimum.
Another way of putting my point, and more provocatively, is to declare: Scientists have had their chance to save the world. Now, are engineers about to get their turn?
Henry Petroski clearly believes so. In an important new book, The Essential Engineer, Petroski argues that science alone will not solve our global problems.