Since becoming director of the National Academy of Engineering’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society in May, Rosalyn W. Berne has found no shortage of ethical issues that demand engineers’ attention.

She is taking leave from her position as an associate professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia to lead the center. The role is a natural extension of her work in the Department of Engineering and Society at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as previous leadership roles at the University. She also continues to teach one course a semester while on leave.

Rosalyn Berne portrait

“The center’s purpose is to focus attention at the national level on the ethical and social aspects of engineering. There is no one better to lead this effort than my colleague Rosalyn Berne,” said W. Bernard Carlson, the department chair. “We are proud of her accomplishments and thrilled to have Ros represent UVA Engineering at the National Academy of Engineering.”

Berne is excited by the opportunity, she said, citing the abundance of ethical issues that engineers grapple with today. For instance, we’re still dealing with impacts from the 2015 Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal: In September, Porsche announced it is shutting down diesel production.

But to Berne, the scandal is a micro issue compared to the systemic concerns we need to tackle.

“Engineers are beautifully motivated to solve problems, such as providing medical care with plastics,” Berne said. “But plastics have a life cycle, and they are coming back to us, littering our beaches, congesting our oceans and traveling through the food web to our seafood — it’s on the order of a Frankenstein creation.”

“We need to ask: How do we carry through on the obligation and responsibility for the entire life cycle for plastics? Can we design and produce plastics and still care for the earth and humanity?”

One of her goals during her tenure is to bring engineers who design and manufacture plastics together to address those questions.

Carlson suggested she’s the right person to take on this and other challenges.

“Ros has a gift for helping technology leaders to develop a sense of moral imagination,” Carlson said. “Through her research and teaching in the field of science, technology and society, she has developed a rich and nuanced understanding of the ethical challenges that arise with new, disruptive technologies.”

The academy hosts an online repository of case studies, journal articles and other resources in ethics questions that engineers face. Berne wants to expand this resource and serve as an ethics consultant to the academies at large. She also wants to organize thought-leadership workshops. She’s particularly interested in the macro issues of our time that affect large numbers of consumers.

“Technology is changing radically and it’s changing us,” Berne said. “And we may be a bit overwhelmed right now. We didn’t pause and ask questions with the introduction of computers, or cell phones, or the internet. We simply adopted their use and adapted to them. We’re keeping up in the marketplace, but there’s a sense that we can’t stop it. With autonomous vehicles we are pausing, but there are people who say it is inevitable.”

“As soon as you say it is ‘inevitable’ that is when we need to ask: Do we still have choices?” Berne said. “And what have we given up to get to where we are?”

Berne sees engineers and society poised at a crucial moment in our history. She said the most important question is “Will we become conscious and socially responsible?”