Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

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The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the largest technical society in the world with more than 375,000 members in 150 nations; it publishes 30 percent of the global technical literature in electrical and computer engineering. The organization was formed in 1963 through a merger of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, founded in 1884) and the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE, formed in 1912 when two local organizations founded in Boston and New York were merged).

In its early years the AIEE struggled to espouse professionalism in engineering despite strong pressure to the contrary from the businesses (mostly electric utilities) that employed the great majority of its members (Layton, 1986). Indeed, the famous engineer and socialist Charles Steinmetz served as president of the AIEE in 1901–1902. By the late twenties, however, business interests dominated the AIEE, evidenced by a lower membership standards that admitted business executives in the utility industry, restriction of the activities of local sections to purely technical matters, censorship of publications critical of business practices, stifling of dissent and public discussion of the profession through restrictions in the code of ethics, and abandonment of open elections in favor of a nominating committee. Many observers would argue that the AIEE's predisposition toward business interests was carried over to the IEEE and prevails to the present day (Herkert 2003).

The IRE was founded in part out of dissatisfaction with the growing dominance of business interests in the IEEE's affairs and in part due to the strong scientific basis and rapid growth of the field of radio engineering, which resulted in a higher sense of professionalism (McMahon 1984, Layton 1986). The IRE also aspired to become an international organization. Ironically, however, the IRE shied away from speaking for its members on professional and policy matters (Layton 1986). By the time of the merger the IRE had surpassed the AIEE in membership, buoyed by the explosive growth in electronics following World War II. The merger, an inevitable result of this development, resulted in a blending of the two institutional cultures that incorporated the IRE's decentralized management structure and professional groups, now known as technical societies (IEEE History Center 1984).

In 1973 the IEEE amended its constitution changing it from a strictly "learned" society to one that also represented the professional interests of its members. As a result, the United States Activities Board (USAB) was formed to represent the interests of U.S. members. (IEEE History Center 1984, McMahon 1984). The USAB and its successor organizations have played an important role in ethics activities of the IEEE and in promoting policy favorable to the U.S. engineering and business community. The affect of the USAB's presence on efforts to globalize the IEEE has been more controversial.

Codes of Ethics

The AIEE promulgated one of the earliest codes of engineering ethics in 1912. The code provided that the "first professional obligation" was to protect the interests of the engineer's clients or employers (Layton 1986). In 1950 the AIEE code was revised to incorporate the cannons of the code of ethics of the engineers' council for professional development, including a provision that the engineer "will have due regard for the safety of life and health of the public and employees who may be affected by the work for which he is responsible" (CSEP 2004). The first IEEE code of ethics was adopted in the 1970s (Unger 1994) following revisions in 1979 and 1987 (CSEP 2004). The current IEEE code of ethics (adopted 1990), in parallel with other contemporary engineering codes, pledges its members to protect the "safety, health and welfare of the public." Unlike others, however, the IEEE code also includes specific language regarding ethics support, committing its members "to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics."

Ethics Activities

The IEEE has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the more proactive professional engineering societies in the ethics area. This positive image derives primarily from ethics activity in the1970s, including preparation of a friend of the court brief supporting the three whistle-blowing engineers in the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) case. Much of this activity was encouraged by the formation of a Committee on Social Implications of Technology by Stephen Unger and other organizational activists, which evolved into the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT). The SSIT, though only 2,000 members strong, has remained an important voice in the IEEE for ethical responsibility and concern for societal implications of technology. The SSIT publishes a quarterly journal, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, hosts an annual conference, and periodically bestows its Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest on engineers who uphold the highest ethical standards of the profession. As noted earlier, the IEEE sub-unit that represents the interests of U.S. members has also been active in ethics issues. At the level of the parent organization, however, ethics activity was generally dormant between the late-1970s and mid-1990s (Unger 1994).

The IEEE reputation for promoting engineering ethics was, in the opinion of many observers, seriously tarnished by events that began to unfold in the late 1990s when a staff and volunteer leader backlash crushed gains in ethics support (Unger 1999, Herkert 2003). Prior to 1995, the only committee of the IEEE Board of Directors (BoD) charged with dealing with ethics was the Member Conduct Committee (MCC), founded in 1978. The MCC's purpose was twofold: to recommend disciplinary action for violation of the Code of Ethics and to recommend support for members who when following the Code encountered difficulties such as employer sanctions.

A BoD-level Ethics Committee, formed in 1995 as a result of efforts by members to elevate the prominence of ethics in the organization, was intended to provide information to members and advise the BoD on ethics-related policies and concerns. As one of its first actions, the Ethics Committee, whose membership included Stephen Unger, in 1996 established an Ethics Hotline designed to provide information and advice on ethical matters to professionals in IEEE fields of interest. Cases brought to the attention of the Ethics Hotline included falsification of quality tests, violations of intellectual property rights, and design and testing flaws that could result in threats to public safety. In some instances, such cases were referred to and acted on by the MCC (Unger 1999).

The Executive Committee of the BoD suspended the Ethics Hotline in 1997 after less than a year of operation. In 1998 the Executive Committee rejected and suppressed its own task force report, which recommended reactivation of the hotline. In the same year, the IEEE implemented bylaw changes that reduced the terms in office of members of the MCC and Ethics Committee, and, in apparent disregard of the IEEE Code of Ethics, prohibited the Ethics Committee from offering advice to any individuals including IEEE members. The cycle was complete in 2001 when the Ethics Committee and the MCC were merged. Like the old MCC, the combined committee has a dual-charge of member discipline and ethics support, but its activities are limited by IEEE Bylaw I-306.6: "Neither the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee nor any of its members shall solicit or otherwise invite complaints, nor shall they provide advice to individuals."

In another example of what one IEEE member describes as ethical timidity, in 2002 the IEEE denied membership benefits to its members in Iran and several other nations on the grounds that such action was required by U.S. trade restrictions, a position that was not shared by most other U.S.-based scientific and technical societies. Compounding the blow to the IEEE ethics profile, the IEEE leadership initially sought to conceal this action on a need to know basis (Gaffney 2003). Though the IEEE later claimed to be vindicated by a government exemption permitting editing and publication of papers submitted by Iranians, the ruling imposed restrictions on collaboration with Iranian scientists and left unchanged the IEEE's suspension of the membership benefits of residents of the sanctioned countries (Foster 2004)


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics;Professional Engineering Organizations.


Foster, Kenneth. (2004). "Call for Action to Protect Free Exchange of Ideas." Nature 429: 343. Letter to the editor calling for response of scientific and engineering community to U.S. government restrictions on publishing and other activities of scientific societies.

Gaffney, Owen. (2003). "IEEE Under Fire for Withdrawing Iranian Members' Benefits." Science 301: 1646. News article regarding the IEEE's controversial actions with respect to the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Herkert, Joseph. (2003). "Biting the Apple (But Not Inhaling): Lessons from Engineering Ethics for Alternative Dispute Resolution Ethics." Penn State Law Review 108: 119–136. Review of recent developments in the field of engineering ethics including discussion of the IEEE's changing stance on ethics support.

Layton, Edwin. (1986). The Revolt of the Engineers, 2nd edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. Seminal history of the development of the engineering profession in the first half of the nineteenth century that focuses on the continuing conflict between business and professional values.

Mcmahon, A. Michael. (1984). The Making of a Profession: A Century of Electrical Engineering in America. New York: IEEE Press. History of the electrical engineering profession commissioned by the IEEE for its centennial.

Unger, Stephen. (1994). Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley. Well-known text on engineering ethics that gives extensive coverage to the IEEE's activities in the ethics arena from the perspective of a long-time participant in many of them.

Unger, Stephen. (1999). "The Assault on IEEE Ethics Support." IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 18(1): 36–40. Review of the IEEE backlash to ethics committee activities in mid-1990s by a prominent member of the ethics committee.


Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (CSEP). (2004). "Codes Of Ethics Online." Available from Archive of more than 850 codes of professional ethics and other material on codes.

IEEE History Center. (1984). "Origins of the IEEE." Available from Brief history of the AIEE and the IRE and their merger to form the IEEE.

IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology. (2004). Available from Internet site of the IEEE "technical" society concerned with social, ethical, and policy implications of technology; publisher of the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine and sponsor of the international symposium on technology and society.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. (1990). "IEEE Code of Ethics." Available from The IEEE's current Code of Ethics; this code has a somewhat different format from other contemporary codes of engineering ethics.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. (2001). "Bylaw I-306." Available from Bylaw describing functions and membership of IEEE standing committees and boards; Section 7 applies to the Ethics and Member Conduct Committee.

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