Are Engineers Allowed to Speak Up for Reforming Their Profession?

In a case that has attracted the attention of the Union of Concerned Scientists, well-known and outspoken civil engineer Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns recently had his professional license challenged by a fellow engineer.

Engineering reformer Chuck Marohn recently had his professional license challenged for speaking up against industry dogma. Image: Strong Towns
The challenge to Chuck Marohn’s professional license was dismissed, but the complaint is going on his permanent record. Image: Strong Towns

The charges were quickly dismissed by the Minnesota licensing board, but the incident has raised questions about engineers’ freedom to speak openly for reform and challenge institutional dogma.

Marohn’s message is often critical of the American Society of Civil Engineers, arguing that spending less on infrastructure would lead to smarter long-term decisions. The challenge was put forward by Jeffrey Peltola, a fellow engineer who is active in the MoveMN campaign to increase taxes for transportation spending in Minnesota. Marohn has been an outspoken critic of the group.

Dave Alden at Network blog Vibrant Bay Area is also an engineer and a smart growth advocate. While he’s never had his license challenged, he says he has at times felt pressure to conform to political and ideological positions at odds. Alden thinks it’s part of the culture of the profession:

Marohn, I, and thousands more have survived rigorous academic training and government licensing to become professional engineers. Those licenses give us the authority to decide how to bridge canyons or how to deliver potable water to millions of people. Those are worthy goals and I’m proud to have professional brethren solving those problems.

But some of us have taken the skill set gained through academia, licensing, and practice to tackle a different problem, how to create a world in which our fellow citizens can live safely, affordably, and with joy and how to bequeath that world to the next generation. It’s also a worthwhile goal and one that should be supported. But challenges to licenses and pigeonholing assumptions aren’t supportive. They’re the reverse.

Writing for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gretchen Goldman notes that scientists and technical experts are often in a unique position to recognize the need for policy changes and that intimidation and threats can have a “chilling effect” on public policy debates. Marohn, for his part, says he won’t be deterred.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Urbanist reports that a remarkable 90 percent of new residential buildings in Seattle are either mixed-use or multi-family David Levinson at The Transportationist shares a write-up of his research showing an important break from historical patterns: Americans are starting to spend less time traveling and more time at home. And Greater Greater Washington finds that young people are increasingly residing in the center of the D.C. region.

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