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Will a new law stifle physics in Canada?

03 Sep 2010 Hamish Johnston

By Hamish Johnston

UPDATE: A tentative agreement has been reached by CAP and PEO on the natural sciences exemption.

Professional engineering is a closed shop and rightly so – you wouldn’t want to fly in an aeroplane designed and built by someone with no knowledge of aeronautical engineering principles. As a result, many jurisdictions use laws to define a set of tasks that can only be done by professional engineers.

But could this prevent physicists from doing their jobs? Yes, according to the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP), which is trying to stop changes to the Ontario Engineering Act in Canada’s most populous province.

The offending revision ensures that only a professional engineer can apply engineering principles to an activity that “concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment”.

The problem is that many engineering principles are also principles of physics (or chemistry, biology etc.). Here’s an example…

F = ma is an engineering principle and it makes perfect sense that only a professional engineer should be allowed to approve a bridge design based on such principles.

However, F = ma could also be used by a physicist to design an ion-trap-on-a-chip for a commercial quantum computer. Because economic interests are involved, the new act would require that an engineer “sign off” on the physicist’s design before it is implemented – even if the engineer knows little or nothing about quantum computing.

CAP president Henry van Driel says that such restrictions “could make it impossible for many, if not most, natural scientists to practice their professions in industry, government and universities”.

In the past, CAP and other scientific societies have negotiated with lawmakers and provincial engineering bodies to win exemptions for natural scientists. Indeed, these are spelled out in guidelines that can be downloaded from the website of Engineering Canada, Canada’s national engineering association

But now in a letter to its members, CAP is claiming that the professional body of Ontario engineers (PEO) is intent on removing the exemption and did not consult with Canada’s scientific societies while the new legislation was being drafted.

As a result, CAP had been in the dark about the changes until the bill had made significant progress through the Ontario legislature.

Now, van Driel has called on the Ontario government to make a last minute amendment to the bill that exempts natural scientists. You can read his letter here.

Each of Canada’s 10 provinces has its own engineering laws and professional bodies, so the PEO is probably in its right to ignore the Engineering Canada guidelines. However the affair doesn’t reflect well on relations between the nation’s engineers and physicists.

I’m also surprised that CAP seems to have been caught out by the revisions. The organization has been fighting this battle for nearly 30 years, so it should have seen this coming.

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