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Member Questions Bridge Design Without Thorough Knowledge of Facts

Situation

An ASCE member employed as a university professor is commissioned by the state auditor-general to help peer-review the design review and project management processes of the state department of transportation (dot). After a five-month investigation that includes interviews with dot staff members, on-site observation of processes, and a review of project documentation and correspondence, the professor and his team of reviewers issue a report that is harshly critical of the dot’s quality control procedures.  

Among the projects discussed in the report is a large single-span bridge recently designed and constructed as a replacement for an older bridge found to be in poor condition. The new bridge, designed by a private engineering firm working as an independent contractor, is controversial both for its unique design and for its use of a locally available material, a choice made against the recommendations of a prior consultant. The professor’s report notes that the team could find little documentation of the dot’s design review process for the bridge and that the only materials made available to the peer review team were personal correspondence from dot staff members and minutes of meetings between dot staff members and members of the design team. The report lists various concerns about the bridge’s design and its use of materials, observes that no evidence exists that the dot’s design review team ever examined these issues, and concludes that because of the shortcomings of the dot’s quality control procedures, the peer review team had “serious concerns about the adequacy of the bridge design.” 

The auditor-general makes the peer review team’s report available to the public, and local news organizations quickly seize upon the report’s implication that the new bridge is unsafe. The state dot fires back by condemning the report as “glaringly inaccurate,” and the engineering firm responsible for the design threatens legal action if the report is not withdrawn. The firm’s president notes that the peer review team made no attempt to communicate with the design firm prior to issuing the report, that the team did not review the firm’s design calculations or its final drawings, and that neither the professor nor the other members of his team had design experience for this particular type of bridge. 

In response to the growing news coverage, a legislative hearing is convened. At the hearing, the professor states that in hindsight he should have communicated with the design firm before issuing the report and admits that, if he had done so, some of the report’s conclusions might have been different. The professor acknowledges that the new bridge is safe, and the general result of the hearing is one of vindication for both the design firm and the dot. 

A local ASCE member forwards media accounts of the legislative hearing to ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC), which opens an investigation into the matter. 

Question

Did the member’s actions in questioning the adequacy of a bridge design without reviewing the design engineer’s calculations or drawings violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics? 

Discussion

Category (g) in the guidelines to practice for canon 5 in the Code of Ethics reads as follows: “Engineers shall not maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, injure the professional reputation, prospects, practice or employment of another engineer or indiscriminately criticize another’s work.” Furthermore, canon 3 states that “engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner,” and category (a) in the guidelines to practice for this canon notes that engineers “shall not participate in the dissemination of untrue, unfair or exaggerated statements regarding engineering.” 

In a telephone interview with members of the CPC, the professor noted that the team had been asked to study the design review procedures for certain dot projects, not the designs themselves, and that he had therefore not considered it necessary to review the design calculations or notes for the bridge project. He claimed that the report was intended merely as a summary of design issues and questions that should have been raised in the design review process and that news organizations had misconstrued the peer review report as a critical analysis of the project. The professor also contended that he was under the impression that the report was to be disseminated only to dot staff members, and he had no idea that it would be made public. He stated that the report was an objective study of the dot’s processes and emphatically denied any suggestion that he had acted unethically. 

When contacted by the CPC for comment, the president of the bridge design firm claimed that the professor’s report and the months of subsequent press coverage had done significant damage to the firm. The president labeled the report “irresponsible” and “unprofessional” and claimed that the peer review team’s actions had tarnished the integrity of the peer review process and the profession as a whole. At the same time, the president believed that the matter had been effectively resolved by the professor’s statements at the legislative hearing. The design firm had decided to spare itself the cost and time needed to pursue further legal action, and the president expressed an interest in simply putting the matter to rest. 

The members of the CPC felt that the ASCE member had indiscriminately expressed criticism of a bridge design without a thorough knowledge of the facts and that his dissemination of the criticism constituted a potential violation of canons 3 and 5 of the Code of Ethics. However, the members agreed that the report had been used by news organizations to draw conclusions well beyond the study’s stated purpose. Moreover, they acknowledged that the professor had already publicly recanted the report’s most damaging statements during the legislative hearing, and they were cognizant of the design firm president’s wish that no action be taken to draw further attention to the matter. After lengthy internal discussions and discussions with the affected parties, the committee decided to close the case without disciplinary action, and the member was notified of this decision.  

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society.  

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