The Philosophy of Safety Engineering
Research questions: How do we establish that a system is safe? In looking at past accidents, what causal frameworks should we employ to analyse and report what went wrong? In looking at proposed systems, what methods of analysis and reporting should we use to establish confidence that it is safe enough?
Background: Safety Engineering is the discipline which aims to establish and improve safety in engineered systems. Classic successes of Safety Engineering include airbags and seatbelts in cars, residual current devices (RCD breakers) in home electrical systems, and airborne collision avoidance systems (ACAS) in aircraft.
It is easy to see that these developments improved the safety of the systems in question as they mitigated known and serious risks, but do seatbelts, RCDs, or ACAS establish that cars, electrical systems, or aircraft are now safe? This project will focus on two strands of this question: accident investigations, and ‘safety cases’.
Accident investigations provide an explicit case history of the causal assumptions and reasoning – i.e. the causal metaphysics – that engineers use to establish fault, and to inform future design. Contemporary metaphysics is well placed to assess, and critique, those assumptions in their practical context.
The term ‘safety case’ is used to refer to a disparate range of practices within Safety Engineering, and the methodology, and purpose, of such safety cases are ripe for philosophical analysis. One prominent form of ‘safety case’ is an explicit argument to the conclusion that a system is safe, and there is live debate within the Safety Engineering community about what should count as evidence and what should count as justification in this context. The resources developed through contemporary epistemology could contribute a great deal to such debates, and to the practice of producing a ‘safety case’ more generally.
With millions of components, and a low threshold for risk, aeronautic engineering is a prime example of where these epistemic challenges interact with value judgements in the practical sphere. NASA’s Formal Methods research team seeks to regiment and formalise these inferences in the aeronautic context, and to do so they need to take a stance on vexed issues of causation, explanation, evidence, justification, risk, knowledge, understanding, and value. This collaborative PhD project will investigate the role that contemporary epistemology and metaphysics can play in the work of these safety engineers.
The project has three primary aims:
- Backwards: Analyse the case history of contentious accident investigations and identify the causal frameworks being employed. Are better approaches available?
- Forwards: Analyse the epistemic assumptions in each of the disparate methodologies that are currently employed under the heading of ‘safety cases’. Is there a better model for producing ‘safety cases’?
- Policy: Apply recent developments in philosophy, and new resources in Safety Engineering, to generate policy proposals in collaboration with NASA.
The targeted impact is to reduce accidents involving complex systems.
Project structure: The successful candidate will primarily be based at the University of Glasgow and will work closely with supervisors (Dr J. Adam Carter and Dr Neil McDonnell). Subject to budgetary confirmation, it is anticipated that they will also spend a period of between six months, and one year, with NASA at the Langley Research Centre, working closely with C. Michael Holloway and colleagues.
The project will involve analysing the case history of accident investigations, and a range of so-called ‘safety cases’, with the aim of identifying, and defending ways to improve upon, the philosophical assumptions and frameworks that are being deployed.
The philosophical training most relevant to the backwards-looking dimension of the project will be in contemporary metaphysics, especially, the metaphysics of causation and metaphysical explanation, whereas the philosophical training most relevant to the forwards-looking dimension of the project will be in epistemology, especially, the epistemology of luck and risk, justified reasoning and epistemic normativity.
The successful candidate will be expected to conduct the analysis outlined above, contribute to the writing of policy proposals in respect of the findings of the aforementioned analysis, and to write a philosophical thesis (70,000 – 100,000 words) within the broad topic area of the Philosophy of Safety Engineering. The resultant thesis may incorporate the practical policy-directed research, or be wholly theoretical, depending on the career ambitions of the candidate.
During the course of the PhD, the candidate will have the opportunity to—along with regular supervision by the project team—present work in progress at Glasgow’s Postgraduate Seminar as well as at Glasgow’s COGITOEpistemology Group Work in Progress Seminar, both of which are held weekly in Glasgow.
We seek applicants with a masters degree (or equivalent) in analytic philosophy. A demonstrable interest/competence in relevant topics in epistemology and/or metaphysics will be considered an advantage.
To be eligible for a full award a student must have a relevant connection with the United Kingdom. A relevant connection may be established if the following criteria is met:
- The candidate has been ordinarily resident in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay
- Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship. This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences)
- Not been residing in the UK wholly or mainly for the purpose of full-time education. (This does not apply to UK or EU nationals).
To be eligible for a fees only award:
- Students from EU countries other than the UK are generally eligible for a fees-only award. To be eligible for a fees-only award, a student must be ordinarily resident in a member state of the EU; in the same way as UK students must be ordinarily resident in the UK.
To be eligible you will also need to be accepted onto the relevant PhD programme via University of Glasgow Admissions.
Further details of funding eligibility criteria are available in the guidance notes on the SGSAH website.
How to apply
Applicants should submit a Curriculum Vitae, including contact details of one academic referee, and a 2-page covering letter outlining why they are interested in this collaborative doctoral award and what they would bring to this project.
This should be sent in an email to Neil.Mcdonnell@glasgow.ac.uk and Adam.Carter@glasgow.ac.uk by 14 December 2018.
Interviews will be held on 11 January 2019. Interviewing will enable the identification of a candidate who will liaise with the supervisory team and complete a full CDA PhD studentship application form by 13th February 2019, for consideration and final evaluation by SGSAH. Those successfully nominated will not be automatically funded.
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