2 Mar 2009

Engineers Doing It Right

Hurricane Katrina was not only a disaster in human, economic and political terms, it was also a disaster for the engineers who had worked to protect New Orleans (and the area) from weather that had no respect for the ambitions of man.

In the aftermath of the "failure" of many engineering works (and promises), the profession surely had a lot to learn and reflect upon.

I am happy to find that the profession has not shied away from turning a sharp eye onto itself, and these letters (sent by BB) attest to their careful examination.

In the first [PDF], Berkeley Professor Raymond B. Seed (Civil and Environmental Engineering) addresses the Soul of the Profession in his letter to the President of the American Society of Civil Engineers:
One of the principles of our investigation last year was that “light of day” is the most powerful weapon for truth available to most of us on a regular basis. When bad things happen, they often occur quietly, and in the dark. When the light of day is shone upon them, bad things often cease, and the perpetrators often slink away. When earnest disagreements occur, open discourse and sharing, and even debate, are generally the best ways to resolve these. When the two powerful ingredients of truth and light of day are combined together, they can be remarkably powerful forces for good.


The failure of the New Orleans regional flood protection systems was one of the two most costly failures of engineered systems in history (rivaled only by the Chernobyl reactor meltdown). It was not, however, all that much more daunting than some of what has followed.

I would never have imagined that I would live to see select elements of two of the world’s pre-eminent civil engineering organizations, two organizations with tremendous public trust and responsibility, be caught behaving so badly. These past two years, both the USACE and ASCE have been dishonored by the unacceptable, and even unfathomable, actions of a few. These are two of the most important civil engineering organizations in the world. If that cannot be reversed and repaired, and if recurrence cannot be prevented, then the ethics and the very soul of the Profession are in peril.

[Much Later...]

I have spent my life working to inspire young people to enter this field (that I consider so wondrous), and trying to provide them with the knowledge and tools to perform well in this exciting profession. I thought that was enough, but I was mistaken. I did not realize that they also needed the opportunity to work in a field of good ethics. I took that for granted, as most civil engineers work at something that they love, and are generally underpaid for the level of effort and expertise that they bring to bear; a recipe for attracting unusually moral and ethical individuals.


In our graduate program here at U.C. Berkeley, I begin each year by asking the new graduate students what the main difference is between doctors and engineers. The answer is that doctors can only kill people one at a time, and after the first several at most someone usually stops them. Engineers, on the other hand, can leave unsafe projects scattered throughout the world, only to be revealed when extreme loads eventually occur… potentially killing many all at once. The point is that this is far more than an intellectual exercise; and it is not a game. People depend on engineers to get it right, and nothing less than full effort, and dedication to public safety above all else, is acceptable.

Diligence. Dedication. Service. Ethics. None of these can be negotiable. Not for the two most important civil engineering organizations on the planet.

The People of the Nation, and their elected leaders, must know with full assurance that the American Society of Civil Engineers can be counted upon to render well-developed technical opinions on behalf of the Profession, without bias or ulterior motivation, to speak clearly and simply, and to tell only the unvarnished truth.

Even in the most trying of circumstances.
The letter [PDF] of Seed's colleague, Professor R.G. Bea, is similarly revealing:
This has been the most challenging study of the failure of an engineered system that I have been involved in during my 53 year engineering career. I have been directly involved in investigations of more than 100 high consequence failures and performed detailed studies of more than 500 additional such failures (including work for NASA on the Columbia accident and the shipping industry and USCG on the Exxon Valdez). This failure played out exactly as the majority of these other failures played out. The dominant contributors to the failure were centered in human and organizational malfunctions represented as breakdowns in the TDS. The failure developed during the operations and maintenance phases of the system. The vast majority of the contributors to the failure were firmly rooted in the early concept development and design phases of the system.
We should thank our lucky stars that Seeds and Bea are willing to speak out from their positions of influence and insight. Now all we can hope is that they are heard.

Bottom Line: True professionals can give and receive criticism in the knowledge that effort, soul-searching and discomfort are the costs worth bearing in the quest for greater capability, quality and service.


  1. Thanks for posting this, David. Wonderful!

  2. I agree - this is a great post. Thanks (both to you and the letter authors!)

  3. Those are great excerpts, but the message they bring is ultimately gloomy. Economic incentives now impel engineers to behave badly. What will reverse this trend? Have USACE and ASCE accepted Dr. Seed's judgement, apologized to the victims, fired those responsible, and changed the way they operate?

    I really liked Dr. Seed's remark about the effects of under-compensation. Food for thought.

  4. "The point is that this is far more than an intellectual exercise; and it is not a game." (italics mine)

    I'm afraid that point is probably lost. To a certain kind of person, everything is a game, and their objective is to win. Whatever it takes. That kind of person tends to rise into positions of power...

    What a great letter by Dr. Seed. Deeply disturbing.


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