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Published by the IEEE Computer Society
An Award for Sticking your Neck Out
The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) gives out the Carl Barus Award for outstanding service in the public interest. SSIT gave its first award for outstanding service in the public interest in 1978 and has since given out the award nine times since then. This department presents the 10 awardees, with information about each, taken from the SSIT website.
One of the functions of a professional organization is to give awards. IEEE gives dozens, including medals, technical awards, and recognitions (see www.ieee.org/about/awards/index.html). The IEEE Computer Society, which publishes IT Professional, has 20 awards of its own (see http://awards.computer.org/ana/award/viewHomepage.action). The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT) gives out the Carl Barus Award for outstanding service in the public interest. I like to call this the "sticking your neck out" award.
The first clause of IEEE's code of ethics says, "We, the members of IEEE, [agree to] accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment" ( www.ieee.org/about/corporate/governance/p7-8.html). Although all IEEE members have this responsibility, some engineers face professional situations in which they must put their own professional advancement on the line to protect the public.
SSIT gave its first award for outstanding service in the public interest in 1978 and has since given out the award nine more times. Here I present the 10 awardees, with information about each, taken from the SSIT website ( www.ieeessit.org/about.asp?Level2ItemID=5). (Information in parentheses isn't from the website.) For more extensive information about these award recipients, see Stephen Unger's related articles ( www.onlineethics.org/Topics/ProfPractice/Exemplars/AwardWinners.aspx).
Max Blankenzee, Robert Bruder, and Holger Hjortsvang—1978
This award was giving in recognition of Blankenzee, Bruder, and Hjortsvang's efforts to protect public safety, despite great personal sacrifice, in expressing their concerns regarding uncorrected design problems in the BART rail system.
This award recognized Edgerton's efforts to protect the public safety, despite losing her position, in filing a memorandum on possible degradation of police emergency dispatch response time by a computer program for which she was responsible.
This award was in recognition of Parks' "courageous adherence to the highest standards of professional ethics" in challenging procedures instituted by his employer in the nuclear power industry as unsafe and in violation of regulations.
This was awarded posthumously to recognize Linder's "courageous and altruistic efforts to create human good by applying his technical abilities" while working on appropriate technology projects in Nicaragua. (Linder was killed by Contras while working on a hydroelectric project. For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Linder.)
Demetrios L. Basdekas—1991
Basdekas was recognized for his long-standing efforts to improve the regulatory process in the nuclear power field.
Under particularly dangerous conditions, Leaf directed a project to make electricity available to people in a remote rural area of Nicaragua and to educate local people in the rudiments of technology. (Leaf continued Linder's work.)
Castro reported a dangerous product design to the Food and Drug Administration at the cost of his job. Read his speech, "Experience of a Whistleblower," at http://users.khbo.be/lodew/Whistleblower%20Castro.htm.
Monts made tireless efforts as an engineer in the Physical Plant Services Department of the University of Louisiana to report and rectify safety. Monts' positions inevitably resulted in his termination and a subsequent and protracted civil suit.
Nancy Kymn Harvin—2006
Harvin, a former senior manager at the PSEG Nuclear Power Plant in Lower Alloways Creek, New Jersey, was recognized for her contribution and personal sacrifice in drawing attention to significant safety problems at the Salem-Hope Creek nuclear facility.
DeKort was a lead engineer working for Lockheed-Martin on the Deepwater Project. In 2005, DeKort discovered problems in an advanced state of a 123-foot patrol boat project and made great efforts to correct the problems. His efforts were rejected, and he was fired from the project. According to US Representative Elijah E. Cummings, who spoke at the award ceremony for DeKort, "Through his actions, DeKort embodied dedication to excellence. [His] commitment to excellence came at a cost to him personally, and yet it was a cost that he was willing to bear to do what he believed was right."
Not every engineer who takes a stand for the public good gets an award, of course. And it's important to remember that engineers who do the right thing, everyday, out of the limelight, exhibit their own kind of heroism. However, it's also inspiring to celebrate technical people who do extraordinary things, often at great personal risk, to safeguard the public.
SSIT actively seeks nominations for the Barus Award. If you know of an IT professional, or any engineer for that matter, who has courageously stood up for the public interest, please contact Stephen Unger (email@example.com), chair of SSIT's Ethics Committee.
Keith W. Miller
is the Schewe Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His research interests include computer ethics, software testing, and online learning. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.