Is it time for an ethical renaissance in the engineering profession?

In light of the climate emergency, the time has come for Canada’s engineering regulators to get a makeover

Canada is an engineering powerhouse. Beyond designing, building and maintaining our vital infrastructure, engineering industries form the backbone of the country’s economy. Given its power in shaping our environmental, virtual and social landscapes, it’s worth asking how the profession can evolve to meet the current moment of compounded health and environmental crises.

Like medicine and law, engineering is a regulated profession in Canada. Each province or territory has an official organization responsible for granting P.Eng. (professional engineering) licences and for upholding professional and ethical standards. These requirements are in place to ensure the safety of both workers and the public when an engineering project is executed, but also to ensure that there is a clear line of accountability if things go wrong. Cases do arise where a regulator will revoke an engineer’s licence if they are found guilty of Professional Misconduct, as defined by that Province’s version of a Professional Engineers Act, as it is called in Ontario . The Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) receives approximately 300 complaints each year, of which 10 go to disciplinary hearings, and one or two cases result in suspension, according to 2017 reporting.

Confusingly, some provinces separate out Professional Misconduct from “ethics” entirely. For example, in Ontario, a P.Eng can lose their licence for violating the code of professional misconduct, but not the code of ethics, which are distinct parts of the legislation governing Professional Engineering in Ontario. This complication has led to extensive debate in the professional engineering community about the purpose of the code of ethics. In 2003, Sal Guerriero, PEO’s manager of tribunals at the time, was infamously quoted on the topic as saying, “PEO’s Code of Ethics should not be confused with ethics per se … ethics imply moral deliberation and freedom of choice.”

We need only look to ongoing engineering crises to see that ethical standards certainly did not apply to the chemical engineers of the Dryden Chemical Company, responsible for dumping 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the Wabigoon River upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation between 1962 and 1970, nor to those of Northern Pulp’s mill for releasing toxic effluent into a lagoon adjacent to Pictou Landing First Nation between 1965 and spring 2020. Nor have they been applied to the engineers behind the continued push for pipeline development through Unist’ot’en territory in British Columbia.

Our international reputation is not much better, with cyclically scandal-plagued engineering firms like SNC-Lavalin finding their way into our news and politics for bribery, fraud and corruption.

In cases where legal action is pursued, big engineering companies often have clout and resources, not to mention the free-market lean of the judicial system, in their corner. SNC-Lavalin lobbied the federal government to establish deferred prosecution agreements that would allow for companies accused of bribery, fraud and corruption to be spared criminal charges.

The question of accountability is especially prescient as our everyday human interaction with engineered technologies rapidly broadens. Even before the pandemic, our virtual infrastructure was growing to be just as important as our physical infrastructure – which is aging into a world of climate chaos. Despite the profound social, ethical and legal implications of data mining and artificial intelligence the idea of regulating computer engineering more stringently is generally met with eye-rolling ire in the “tech” community. If you get hit by a self-driving car with a faulty algorithm or your AI-enabled doctor gives you the wrong advice based on a discriminatory data set, who is responsible? For example, Google’s recently abandoned Sidewalk Labs project would have seen a portion of Toronto’s waterfront redeveloped to create a “smart city” based on a sensor-laden infrastructure. The proposal went well beyond the realm of what current privacy legislation is prepared to handle.

But this goes beyond whether you need a post-secondary degree to learn computer programming (you don’t). A P.Eng designation demonstrates to the public that an engineer not only has a sufficient background in science and technology to competently carry out their work, but understands, as tested through the professional practice examination, their knowledge of the codes of ethics and professional misconduct associated with being part of a Canadian professional community.

If this sense of the social role of engineering is lost, then the responsibility of those who build the technology will be forgotten, as Mark Zuckerberg has demonstrated in his laggard response to moderating hate speech and misinformation on Facebook.

Modernized guidelines, stricter regulations and heedful enforcement are clearly needed to hold engineering companies accountable for their environmental and social repercussions.

In 2018, Engineers Canada, the national organization that serves the provincial and territorial regulatory bodies with the intention of promoting consistent practices around the country, introduced a report called Public Guideline: Principles of Climate Adaptation and Mitigation for Engineers. It highlights the need to integrate climate mitigation into engineering practices and states that “all engineers have a responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Still, guidelines can be legally enforced only by the provincial and territorial regulatory associations.

Some provinces have incorporated aspects of Engineers Canada’s recommendations into their existing guidelines, although we find no examples of these resulting in the suspension of an engineer’s licence to practice. The absence of robust regulation and accountability for engineering projects does not bode well as the country grapples to meet its emissions targets.

In light of the climate emergency, the time has come for Canada’s engineering regulators to get a makeover. However, reform or intervention efforts are often stopped in their tracks by a well-known scapegoat expressed through an engineer’s favourite dissent: “It’s just not practical.”

But the expectation that reforming within the existing structures will solve these problems is, at best, naïve, given that development at the expense of Indigenous and Black communities remains the foundation on which the country’s economy operates.

That engineering regulators continue to be presented as ethical gatekeepers and beacons of professional success to engineering students by universities is deeply troubling.

As Canada seeks to recover from COVID-19 and face the climate crisis, the time has never been more apt for engineers to update their relationship with ethics and their duty to society.

A veritable just recovery for Canada requires a difficult conversation about the complicit role engineers quietly play in the deployment of infrastructure and technologies that cause knock-on social and environmental issues. Where better to start than with those who regulate the profession themselves?

Mireille Ghoussoub is a PhD candidate in materials chemistry at the University of Toronto and holds a Masters of Applied Science in materials engineering from the University of Toronto. She is the co-author of The Story of CO2: Big Ideas for a Small Molecule, scheduled for release in November 2020.

Alexandra Tavasoli is the co-founder and CEO of Solistra Corp. and a PhD candidate in materials engineering at the University of Toronto.

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