Monday, December 13, 2004

Unintentional Descrimination

A Sunday article in The Washington Post reported about 11,000 new jobs in the homeland security domain that are expected to be created in Northern Virginia within the next five years. The article included an interview with SRA, which expects to add several hundred in the next six months. The SRA representative indicated that their hiring strategy is generally to ask their employees for referrals; they generally don't advertise the open positions.

What SRA doesn't realize is that this policy results in unintentional discrimination, and should be balanced with a corresponding affirmative action program to really be considered fair. The reason is that if SRA has a disproportionate number of white employees (I have no idea if they do.) then they will get a disproportionate number of white applicants for these positions. It's not that white people won't refer their minority friends to their employer, it's that white employees on average have proportionally fewer minority friends than exist minorities in the general population.

I am reminded of my experience when I graduated from Villanova in 1992. You may recall that there was an economic downturn in 1992, and jobs were hard to come by. My grandfather was an accountant, and had provided accountancy services to Sharp electronics. He asked Sharp to give me a call and set up an interview.

Now, understand that I was and remain grateful to my grandfather for his help, but I am very pleased that I did not have to accept an offer from Sharp: I found a position with GE instead. Even at the time I was gravely troubled. I'm sure (I opined) that there are any number of minority engineers graduating from Drexel who are more qualified than I for a position at Sharp electronics. They are significantly less likely to have accountant grandfathers than similarly qualified white graduates. (Their grandfathers, in many cases, having been forbidden by law or custom from holding white-collar jobs.) This kind of networking amounts to a kind of structural descrimination. The hiring manager sees disproportinally fewer minority candidates, and ends up hiring disproportionally fewer minorities.

As long as programs like SRA's exist, the need for affirmative action will continue to exist.

I hope it won't be forever.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Actual and Imputed Motivation

In my work as a systems engineer, I encountered a conflict recently that by God's grace we may be able to resolve. We all in the systems engineering team believe that we need to change our methodology for systems architecture. A year and a half of experience with our current methodology tells us it just doesn't provide to our customers (the development contractor) the information they need to do their job.

The chief architect, on the recommendation of a consultant, has selected a particular methodology (I won't name it here.) that several of us are familiar with. He selected this, according to his own statements, because he believes it will make requirements analysis more efficient, giving us more time for detailed design. Those of us most familiar with the methodology are arguing strongly against this move because we know by experience that this methodology doesn't scale well, and we believe that the scope of our project is sufficiently large that it won't scale well for our project. We believe that it won't be more efficient.

The chief architect has been completely unwilling to even listen to our arguments that this is the wrong methodology for us. This has puzzled us, since he is normally a reasonable fellow. In discussing this odd turn of events, we came to a realization that we hope will resolve the issue shortly. The realization has to do with imputed instead of actual motivation.

The chief architect proposed this methodology expecting our group to object because it will move authority (and control) for a key artifact out from our group and give it to another. Going in with this expectation, he has imputed to us a "ricebowl" motivation for all our objections. The truth is that we don't much care who owns this artifact, we are just concerned that the result will be less efficient, rather than more efficient, and have good arguments for such. This is our actual motivation.

I have convinced my boss to discuss this issue -- imputed vs. actual motivation -- with the chief architect. We are now hopeful that once the chief architect understands that our motivations are not what he presumed them to be, he will at least give our technical objections a fair hearing.

Proof that even in the world of engineering, you have to understand people and what motivates them. This experience has taught me to be on the lookout for imputed motivations -- imputed by myself, or imputed by others. I hope that this insight will smoothe interpersonal relations for me in the future.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Advances in Embryonic Stem Cells

It is unfortunate that so many Americans are unaware that there are two types of stem cells, and only one type has been shown to have any theraputic benefit at all. Embryonic stem cells are taken from otherwise normally developing embryos, however it is necessary to kill the embryos to harvest them. No one has ever identified any theraputic benefit for such cells, and only an amoral monster could argue that it is acceptable to destroy a human embryo for a purpose that provides no benefit to anyone.

Adult stem cells are taken from adult tissue, and there have been several promising experiments with them. No one is injured when adult stem cells are harvested. I argue that instead of wasting their time and effort lobbying for the federally-funded murder of additional embryos, advocates for stem-cell research should spend their money financing adult stem-cell research.

Given these caveats, I did find interesting the article in today's Washington Post that discusses two approaches to harvesting embryonic stem cells that do not involve the destruction of human beings. I laud the members of this bioethics committee for looking into other options. Unfortunately, at least one of these approaches remains morally unacceptable.

The first approach discussed involves watching embryos who have been produced as part of an IVF program. Some 40% of such embryos cease to divide after a few days, indicating that they are morally equivalent to adults who have experienced "brain death," still metabolizing, thus "alive" in some sense, yet not in any sustainable or meaningful way. Curiously enough, just as one can harvest a liver or heart from a brain-dead adult, it remains possible in some cases to harvest embryonic stem cells from such embryos. The "ethicists" in this article seem to believe that no-one could have an ethical objection to such harvesting. They are close to the truth, but sadly blind to their error.

While I would be hard-pressed to argue that the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from such embryos is immoral, I must point out that the creation of such embryos for IVF is certainly immoral. It may not be immoral on the same scale as intentionally killing an embryo is, but the distinction is much like arguing that rape is not as bad as murder. The statement may be true, but it hardly makes an effective argument for encouraging rapists. The reason I make this analogy is that just as rape is an offense against the dignity of a human being, in-vitro fertilization is an offense against the dignity of the child. Every human being has the right to be conceived as part of loving relations between married parents, and within the womb of his mother. Anything less offends the dignity of that child. Therefore, while the harvesting of stem cells from deceased embryos is not a sin, creating those embryos in-vitro in the first place most certainly is. It is no more moral to profit from the immoral actions of others in this case than it would be to make use of the scientific research of Josef Mengele (Nazi torturer).

The second approach is a bit more complex, but strikes me as potentially more promising from a moral standpoint. In this approach, an adult cell is taken and certain genes (I suspect homeobox genes) are disabled. The nucleus is then evacuated from an ovum, and the nucleus from the disabled adult cell is inserted. This is the same process that is used for cloning. The same electro-chemical stimulation as is used in cloning is provided. However, with these genes disabled, what would be produced is not an embryo, but a tumor cell known as a teratoma. Embryonic stem cells could then be harvested from this teratoma, and their disabled genes reactivated.

Curiously enough, it is this second approach that garnered objections from the bioethics panel. "What you propose, really, is to build a weird genetic hybrid. . . . Is that right?" was the objection. I can understand the concern, but it's hard to see exactly how this is reasonable ethical objection, since human life is neither created nor destroyed in the process.

One question this proposal raises for me, however, is whether embryonic stem cells could be harvested from naturally-occuring teratomas. These tumors, while rare, appear naturally. I have heard of them being used as the basis for "cell lines." Wouldn't these cell lines also be pluripotent, as embryonic stem cells are?

These ideas still need some work, but I hope this is the start of a more ethical treatment of human embryos.