The Road to $532 Million: Can Ethics Discussion Prevent Tragedy?

December 5, 2023 By Eric Williamson, Eric Williamson,

At least three years before a condominium collapsed in Surfside, Florida, killing close to 100 people, engineers knew there was a problem. Water from the pool deck above the reinforced concrete structural supports of the parking garage had been seeping into the concrete and degrading steel reinforcements. The deck lacked sufficient support to hold. 

Rosalyn Berne, who chairs the Department of Engineering and Society in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, helps STEM students, professors and practitioners have conversations about cautionary tales like this one through the Online Ethics Center she directs. 

“The OEC is here to support those who are concerned about the ethical implications and possible unintended consequences of engineering and science practices,” Berne said. 

Recently, the triple Hoo won a National Science Foundation grant renewal to expand the center from a repository of teachable information into a “community of practice.” UVA received $1 million of the grant, which originated in the National Academy of Engineering.

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The UVA Office of the Vice President for Research is celebrating sponsored research like this, which resulted in a record $532 million in external funding for the 2023 fiscal year, with grants of all sizes making the difference.

Communities of practice are run by fellows, who may be faculty at UVA or other universities, under such categories as research integrity, engineering and social justice, biomedical engineering and data ethics. 

The approach is driven by real-world cases. Either online or through its fellows, the center provides educators with resources on how to analyze and teach the cases, as well as documentation from real students who have worked through the material. 

Portrait outside of Rosalyn Berne

Rosalyn Berne, who chairs the Department of Engineering and Society in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, leads the center. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Brian L. Smith, associate dean in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said UVA’s sterling reputation for teaching engineering through an ethical lens is in large part due to Berne’s efforts.

“Rosalyn not only directs the OEC, she founded the department’s engineering ethics course,” Smith said. “We’re extraordinarily grateful to have her in this important role.” 

Science philosopher Caroline Whitbeck started the OEC more than 25 years ago.

Brian L. Smith

Brian L. Smith, associate dean in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said Berne’s ongoing efforts burnish UVA’s reputation for ethics leadership. (UVA Engineering photo)

“It’s a little different now than the way it started out,” Berne said. “But we’re still just trying to be a place that people know to come to get support and resources. Now, for example, with all that’s going on with AI and data, we’ll need to figure out how to keep replenishing people staying up to date and helping them with resources they need for their teachings.” 

Berne also holds the title of Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics. Her research and writing span considerations of ethics in engineering practice, biotechnology and nanotechnology, and ethics in engineering education.

Why does she love her job? “I get to work with engineers and help them think about things in ways they might not otherwise think about,” she said. “And that’s been really fun and also really interesting. And I have a lot of flexibility in how I do that. I’ve been able to use science fiction. I’ve been able to look at all kinds of topics – for example, reproductive technology.” 

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Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications