Ontario Scientists Retain Legislative Independence From Engineers

3 September 2010 5:59 pm

OTTAWA—The Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) appears to have staved off legislation that would have put natural scientists in the province of Ontario under the thumb of professional engineers. A gentleman’s agreement reached between the physicists and the Professional Engineers Ontario late Thursday will compel both sides to negotiate regulations by the end of this month to exempt the research of natural scientists from requiring supervision from engineers.

At issue were revisions to the Professional Engineers Act introduced as part the government of Ontario’s omnibus Open for Business Act 2010. The legislation redefines the “practice of professional engineering” as “any act of planning, designing, composing, evaluating, advising, reporting, directing or supervising that requires the application of engineering principles and concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment, or the managing of any such act.” It defines natural science as any activity “requiring the application of scientific principles, competently performed.”

The current law grants an exemption to anyone who “holds a recognized honours or higher degree in one or more of the physical, chemical, life, computer or mathematical sciences, or who possesses an equivalent combination of training, and experience,” or is acting under the direct supervision of a professional engineer. But the exemption, negotiated between professional engineers and natural scientists in the early 1990s, was not included in the revised legislation because the engineering community felt that it was too vaguely worded.

The bill is now in its third and final reading and could receive approval any day. Its passage would add Ontario to a list of three provinces—British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia—that do not include an exception clause for natural scientists. Paul Vincett, director of science policy and past president of CAP, says the lack of an exemption has stalled research in those provinces or compelled scientists to hire engineers before carrying out their work.

CAP President Henry van Driel raised objections to the pending legislation in an 27 August letter to Ontario Attorney General Christopher Bentley. Van Driel said that the legislation would make it “impossible for many, if not most, natural scientists [physicists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists, etc.] to practice their professions in industry, government, and universities” without the oversight of an engineer “who might know little or nothing about the specialty.” He said the bill as written “would have far-reaching and very damaging impacts, not only on the scientific community but also on Ontario’s economy, postsecondary research and education system, and even health care.”

The two scientific organizations have agreed to resolve their differences through regulation because the provincial government was loathe to amendment the legislation. At issue is the training required for a natural scientist to qualify for a regulatory exemption. A regulatory solution is “not risk-free,” says Vincett. “But it’s potentially a workable system as long as there is good will on both sides.”

The attorney general’s office says it will be “monitoring the implementation” of the informal agreement. The agreement commits the engineers to “develop a regulation that creates a class of persons recognized as natural scientists that are exempt from the definition of professional engineering in the Professional Engineers Act.” Spokesperson Brendan Crawley says the agreement also asks the engineers’ council to delay enforcing the new law until the regulation has gone into effect.