I work in the water industry. My job has a slightly academic bent, and as part of the deal I belong to something called the 'Rivers List', which is an open forum for discussing ideas, questions etc relating to water resources and coastal processes.
Part of the discussion has inevitably turned to the Asian Tsunami. A couple of days ago, a member on the list sent an email saying that he had summarised a lot of the information. Amongst his email, he wrote: "New valuable informations include : engineering surveys and reports from the devastated coastlines several Japanese teams provided rapidly interesting technical data: the highest recorded runup height was 35 m in Western Aceh!!!
Which prompted the following from another member: " Through the rivers list I received your email about the tsunami. I think your remark about the highest recorded runup height was 35m in western Aceh (with 3 '!'s.) is totally misplaced. it is almost like you are talking about a world record in sports that we should be proud of, or so. I do not suggest that we should not look into the hydrodynamic aspects of this tsunami, but realising that almost 300,000 people were killed by this tsunami (many of them in Aceh) and many more suffered severe losses, I think the tone of the message should be very different."
Over the past few days these two emails have prompted a lot of healthy discussion about how we as an engineering and academic body should be responding to this disaster. Engineers spend an awful lot of time studying, interacting and modifying our environment. Sometimes it can be useful to remember who we doing this for and why we are doing, rather than treating it as an academice exercise. One of the more astute comments came this morning: "Obviously, cutting edge research and achievements are always interesting and necessary. But, at the same time, our responsibility is to implement our scientific intuition to have an influence on the system and the people as well. We should not stand apart." In addition to that, I would add the observation that we also need to understand the real nature of the problem we are attempting to solve. At engineering school we were taught theat we should usewhat became known as 'appropriate technology' when working on any project. Essentially that means we don't build a hydroelectric dam in an Indian village when all they need is a well. An extreme example, but I'm sure you get the idea.
As an engineer, I am immensely proud of my profession. OK, so some of the time we build the occasional monstrosity (we blame the architects when this happens), and in the past we have been guilty of a 'bulldozers and wrecking ball' approach to environmental management, but we have the power to create a lot of very positive change in this world. Increasingly this has become more evident, and we have got a lot better at wielding that power.
I'm encouraged by the simple fact that we in the Rivers List are having this discussion.