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Scientists and self governing professional societies in Canada: what direction should scientists take?

The author feels an association covering natural scientists collectively would strengthen science in Canada

It is long overdue that physical and life scientists strengthen their professional position within the established professions in Canada |1~.

Scientists in Canada have created nationally a profusion of learned societies. These provide an important vehicle for promoting the individual sciences. However, increasingly scientists are recognizing that they wish, in addition, to have professional bodies covering their area of science.

Currently, natural scientists, physical and life scientists, are on the course of establishing potentially an even greater profusion of scientific professional bodies. Professional bodies are established through enabling legislation by the provinces and the territories. To cover scientists in one area of science would need 12 bodies, one in each province and territory. Another set of 12 bodies would be needed for another area of science.

However, it also means natural scientists would need a total of only 12 bodies to cover natural scientists collectively. Natural scientists could in this way establish a far stronger professional identity. An individual scientist would then support his/her area of science by membership in the appropriate learned society and support the profession by membership in the professional body covering all natural scientists.

Amongst the established professional bodies in Canada, the associations of the professional engineers provide a clear model for scientists. There is one professional association in each province and territory that covers the totality of engineering -- not a branch. The engineering technicians and technologists have also established professional bodies throughout Canada. Both TABULAR DATA OMITTED examples support the direction that scientists should act collectively.

Chemists in Quebec were the first group of scientists in Canada to establish a professional body (1926). They were followed by chemists in Ontario (1963). Chemists in Alberta have recently established a professional body (1992). Biologists in Alberta established a professional body (1975). Physicists have a Committee on Professionalism, which has the approval from the CAP council to work with other scientists towards establishing professional bodies covering physicists and other scientists. There is clearly an interest on the part of scientists.

The Canadian Society for Chemistry, recognizing this interest, invited all these groups to be represented at the panel discussion, Professional Status for Chemists in Canada, held in Edmonton at the 75th Canadian Chemical Conference in 1992.

The topic is clearly one of great importance, not only to the individual scientist and to the council members of all scientific societies, but to the future and health of science in Canada. Can we agree on the direction?

Self governing professional bodies

A profession in the legal sense is an occupation where a body of knowledge is professed, the practicing members provide services, and the members have organized themselves into a self governing professional body. The last requirement includes the imposition and maintenance of high standards and a code of ethics in the public interest. There are two basic regimes for self governing professional bodies:

* A certification regime that controls the reserved title, e.g. C. Chem controlled by the Association of the Chemical Profession of Ontario.

* A licensure regime that controls the practice, e.g., L'Ordre des chimistes du Quebec.

The authority to establish the self governing bodies is one provided by the provincial or territorial parliaments. As a consequence, professional bodies are not national bodies in Canada. Umbrella national bodies are created so the individual self governing professional bodies may have one voice on national issues and pool resources on common areas of interest.

Five of these national umbrella bodies covering some of the well known professions are listed in Table 1. They were all established over 50 years ago. They have a significant number of members, far exceeding the membership in any learned society of science in Canada. The table also shows that the bodies support a significant number of full time staff working on the affairs of the profession.

The Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, Table 1, is the co-ordinating body for the 12 engineering licensing bodies in Canada. It has three standing committees: The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, The Canadian Engineering Qualifications Board and The Canadian Engineering Manpower Board. Its annual budget is $1.2 million. The funding comes from the individual Professional Engineering associations throughout Canada. These are listed in Table 2.
Table II. The professional engineering associations of Canada
Year Full-time
Established Province/Territory Members Staff
1920 British Columbia(*) 12,000 18
1920 Manitoba 2,900 4
1920 New Brunswick 2,300 5
1920 Nova Scotia 4,040 7
1920 Alberta(**) 22,000 33
1920 Quebec 30,200 52
1922 Ontario 56,000 60
1930 Saskatchewan 3,216 7
1952 Newfoundland(*) 1,900 3
1955 Prince Edward Island 335 0
1955 Yukon 420 0
1979 Northwest Territories(**) 650 1
* Geoscientists are included in two associations.
** Geologists and geophycists are included in two associations.
Table III. Distribution of type of engineers in the Association
of the Professional Engineers of Ontario.
Type Percentage
Mechanical, aeronautical, industrial 33
Electrical 25
Civil (was the largest group when formed) 24
Chemical, metallurgical 13
Mining (was the second largest group when formed) 4

Table V. Graduates in chemistry in each province and possible
size of professional societies of chemists.
 Graduates Prof. Society
Province 1990 (Grads X 15)
Newfoundland 11 170
Prince Edward Island 6 90
Nova Scotia 81 120
New Brunswick 65 980
Quebec 310 4,700
Ontario 606 9,100
Manitoba 34 510
Saskatchewan 26 390
Alberta 74 1,100
British Columbia 145 2,200
Canada 1,358 20,000

The membership figures demonstrate for some of the provinces and territories that the membership is so low full time staff is not available. Even with the country wide base of over 100,000 members some provinces have barely enough members to support the establishment of professional engineering bodies throughout Canada. These figures emphasize the need to have a large potential source of members for a self governing profession to be established nationally.

An example of the diversity of engineering covered within one of the professional engineering associations is evident in Table 3. The example covers Ontario where there are currently five major areas. The relative sizes of the areas have changed significantly since it was established 70 years ago. The nature of the structure of the professional engineering associations allows for the change. This example again provides further support that natural scientists act collectively.

Natural scientists in Canada have established many learned societies, promoting the subject |2~. Frequently these are very small bodies with no permanent address. Very few self governing professional bodies have been established covering some natural scientists. Those covering scientists alone are listed in Table 4, and those covering geophysicists and geologists with professional engineers are listed in Table 2.

One of the consequences of there being very few professional bodies covering scientists is that the practice of the scientist is not under any significant protection in the legal domain. This is not the only consequence |3~ but it is of fundamental importance to scientists as they may find increasing legal limitations on their practice. This holds not only in the industrial and applied sector but also in the academic sector.

How CAP was established

In the 1940s the physics community faced the problem of there being no professional body for physicists. The Canadian Association of Professional Physicists was established. This grew into the learned society the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP). This occurred as there was no learned body and this was clearly needed. In addition, a national professional body could not be created.

The professional concern did not vanish within the CAP. In 1984 changes to the Professional Engineers Act in Ontario were of concern to scientists and the CAP, CIC and other scientific societies |3~. A practice of professional engineering was proposed that included applying "the principles of the physical and life sciences". Since then the CAP has had a Committee on Professionalism.

The committee has addressed the direction that physicists might take in establishing self governing professional bodies covering physicists. It recommended that natural scientists work towards doing this collectively. The results of a questionnaire distributed in 1991-92 among the CAP membership and the physics community have supported this position. There was greater support to establish professional bodies with other scientists (268 Yes to 181 No), than with physicists alone (246 Yes to 210 No). The overall support for establishing professional bodies covering physicists was 350 Yes to 117 No.

In April 1992, the CAP council approved motions that provide a direction to the CAP Committee on Professionalism. The CAP Council approved in principle:

* the establishment of a stronger professional position for the physicist in Canada;

* the establishment of professional acts in each province and territory of Canada covering physicists and other scientists, or physicists alone, depending on the wishes of the local physicists.

In October 1992, the CAP Council provided a further direction: the CAP Council:

* supports professional bodies providing a sole right of title to physicists,

* opposes professional bodies providing a sole right of practice to physicists, save for the particular cases where there is a direct public interest that warrants it.

The objects of a self governing professional body of natural scientists would include: providing certification and registration for scientists; maintaining standards and increase the knowledge and proficiency of scientists; advancing the status and welfare of scientists.

Two of the key functions are setting standards and policing ethics. Each of these are clearly more efficiently addressed if there is one professional body covering natural scientists in each province and territory.

Potential membership in professional bodies

For the establishment of strong professional bodies it is essential that there be adequate membership in each province and territory. If this can not be achieved then the profession will not be covered nationally. Even with the large base for professional engineers, it is seen from Table 2 that there are barely enough members to support a society in some of the provinces and territories.

An estimate of potential members for chemists in professional bodies is given in Table 5. The simple working basis for this table is that the number of members in a professional body is 15 times the number of those graduating. The figure of 15 comes from the ratio of the number of professional engineers in Canada to the number of those graduating in engineering for the 1991-1992 period. From the table it is seen that there are five regions where it would be difficult to establish a professional body, even though the total nationally could be 20,000.

The estimate for the possible size of professional bodies covering the physical and life sciences is shown in Table 6. The potential size is 10 times that for chemists alone and would provide adequate base to cover all provinces and territories.


Natural scientists should consider with care the direction over establishing many self governing professional bodies. We are on a course that covers individual groups of scientists, rather than covering natural scientists collectively. The CAP Committee on Professionalism is inviting discussion and invites support in working towards the establishment of professional bodies covering natural scientists, which in the long term would strengthen science in Canada.


1. The Professional Status of the Chemist and other Natural Scientists in Canada, Peter Kirkby, Canadian Chemical News, May 1985, pp. 5-6.

2. Scientific and Technical Societies of Canada, Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, National Research Council Canada, published every two years.

3. The Professional Scientist in Canada, CAP Committee on Professionalism, Physics in Canada, July 1989, p. 114-119. A summary of this was published in Canadian Chemical News, June 1991, p. 6.
Table VI. Graduates in sciences in Canada and possible total
size of professional societies of scientists.
 Graduates Prof. Society
Science 1990 (Grads X 15)
Chemistry 1,358 20,000
Physics 1,013 15,000
Physical Science 8,044 120,000
Life Science 5,778 87,000
Natural Science 13,822 207,000

Peter Kirkby, Ontario Hydro, chairs the Committee on Professionalism within the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP).
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Author:Kirkby, Peter
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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