Ocean and arctic engineers typically play three roles. Through research, they contribute new understandings of basic scientific principles applied in a strenuous and hostile environment. Through design, they apply that knowledge to such crucial functions as construction, transportation, communication, extraction of natural resources, and environmental conservancy. Through serving as a systems analyst or administrator, they are concerned with both the industrial management of marine technology and with its social management. In this latter concept, ocean and arctic engineers bond their technical talents with deeper perceptions of their client’s dilemmas in a concern for ends as well as means. This exercise is the least familiar to the engineering professional, yet it entails the most trenchant contribution that engineers make to human affairs and thus the noblest expression of social responsibility. This paper traces the connections of ocean and arctic engineering to their broadest context—the economic, social, legal, cultural and political ramifications that increasingly season intrinsic elements of research, design and application. With a series of historical and anecdotal vignettes, this theme is elaborated to dramatize the sharp changes that have accompanied the interaction of technology and society generally in the last four decades. Moving from examples of the excitment of personal enlightment through discovery to the satisfaction of successful operating performance, this review concludes with four evolving challenges: updating tools of practice to incorporate notions of risk assessment and social impact; major reforms in engineering education to emphasize breadth instead of specialization; active engagement in technology-policy analysis to facilitate citizen enlightenment and foresight; and recognition that engineering ethics must parallel technical proficiency and virtuosity in carrying to the future the unique torch of noblesse oblige.

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