Early September, Environmental Science & Technology, a prestigious journal of the environmental engineering field, published an editorial titled “Crossing the Imaginary Line.” The editorial, written by Editor-in-Chief, Prof. David Sedlak, argues that environmental engineering academics should not cross the “imaginary line” that separates the “dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist” as it threatens the objectivity of research and discourages funding for basic research. Or in other words, by advocating for a certain environmental position, the researcher risks academic integrity, and retaliation from funding sources and political entities. The question of not only the researcher’s, but the engineering practitioner’s ethical responsibility to the public has long been debated within the engineering community. The appearance of this editorial in such a major publication has sparked much debate between environmental engineering researchers across the country.
Despite my lack of experience and not being a researcher, I wish to express my thoughts regarding this topic from the perspective of a student still very much in the nascent stages of his career as a practicing engineer, as the ethical responsibility of engineering is often skimmed over in engineering coursework, and always deserves more attention. In addition to my own thoughts, I will include in my discussion the written responses from Prof. Marc Edwards and the Flint Water Study, Prof. Charles Haas, and Ph.D. student Maya Carrasquillo. These responses, along with the original editorial, offer an array of perspectives and help inform my own as I attempt to shape an opinion.
In education, as in life, there will always be challenges. There will be times that we question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if any of it matters. And these times – while the scariest – are also the most valuable, the most important, for they reveal what truly matters to us. No one gets through challenges simply because we are told to do so, but because we choose to do so. I strongly believe that there are two major things we need to tackle challenges: perspective and inspiration – perspective to help us understand where we are, what we know and do not know, and why we do not know it; inspiration to understand where we want to go, and why we want to go there. The source of our perspective and inspiration comes from the realization that we are not alone, that where we are is defined by our relation to one another and to the greater universe, that our motivation comes from our family, friends, mentors, the beauty and mystery of life. It is humility and ambition combined.
When you find yourself questioning why you are doing problem sets, or attending classes, or going to work, remind yourself of your current perspective and inspiration. I say current, because these things can and will change throughout your life. What you do should grow your perspective and inspiration, and your perspective and inspiration should motivate what you do. Without perspective and inspiration, the work you do quickly loses meaning and the cycle is broken.
What troubles me is that the current systems that surround us do not address these two things, instead they construct additional challenges that make us lose our perspective and cloud our inspiration. Instead of being sources of inspiration and perspective, the education system tends to suck these things out of our lives. We are given goals to strive for without the reasons why, we are told to take tests because they will increase our academic standing, we are told we need to be the best out of a tiny percentage of a privileged population because…why? When that happens, we stray away from challenges, letting difficulty or fear of failing be our excuse not to do something. We lose the will to pursue challenges, to work hard.
At the moment, it is up to us to maintain our perspective and inspiration. Please don’t lose it.