A primer on Professional Governance in the Natural Resources Sector

On October 22, 2018, George Heyman tabled Bill 49 – 2018: the Professional Governance Act (the PGA) which will establish the “Office of the Superintendent of Professional Governance” as well as change other elements of professional governance affecting how select professionals are governed in BC. On November 22 this bill completed third reading and is now awaiting Royal Assent.  The new legislation “will establish a single centralized statutory authority focused on governance which will cover professionals working in the Natural Resource sector.” The new “Office of the Superintendent of Professional Governance” will be administered by the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General.

As a Registered Professional Biologist and a Professional Chemist, this new legislation will have a significant effect on my professional life and I think it is important for the public to understand what it will mean for them. In this blog post I want to point out some important information about professionals in the natural resources sector in BC. For simplicity when referring to professionals I will rely on resources from the College of Applied Biology rather than jumping between organizations. 

What does it mean to be a “Professional” in the natural resources sector in BC

Professionals are highly-trained specialists who do the basic science in the natural resources sector. They design the investigations; collect and compile the data; write the reports; and make the recommendations to government. The first thing you need to understand is that a revocable professional designation is THE critical tool available to ensure that professionals behave in an appropriate and ethical manner. To explain, I earned a PhD from UVic and short of them determining I did something wrong during my studies they cannot revoke that PhD. No professional error is justification for them withdrawing my PhD. But my professional designations (I am a Registered Professional Biologist and a Professional Chemist) can be revoked for any number of reasons. As an example, if I act contrary to the College of Applied Biology’s ethical code I can lose my R.P. Bio. 

Most professional organizations provide their members with an individualized professional stamp. This allows professionals to indicate on official documents when they are acting in the role of a professional. Any critical document is stamped and signed by the professional as an attestation that the work has been completed in accordance with professional guidelines. The stamp is proof to a regulator, or an outside third party, that the professional is staking their reputation on that document. Misuse of the stamp is grounds for removal of the stamp.

The critical feature of a revocable professional designation is that it give regulators confidence that the identified professionals are appropriately qualified and monitored for their behaviour. This allows the government to appoint the individuals as Qualified Persons (QP) under various Acts and Regulations. From a professional perspective being a QP is a big thing in the natural resources sector and is something you definitely want to protect. 

How do you get a Professional Designation in BC?

To get a professional designation you need a combination of education and professional experience to satisfy the regulator of your professional body that you are qualified to be a member. The College of Applied Biology as an example requires you have an appropriate degree and professional experience and in addition you have to agree to be bound by a set of rules of Professional Ethics.

Not all organizations have professional designations and not all professional designations are equal. The PGA recognizes five Professional Governing bodies. These are:

  • The British Columbia Institute of Agrologists, 
  • The Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of British Columbia 
  • The College of Applied Biology
  • The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists 
  • The Association of British Columbia Forest Professionals 

You will notice that some other groups are missing. The Association of the Chemical Profession of BC is not in that list because BC never passed a Chemists Act. Professional Chemists have a right to title (more on that later) under the Societies Act but will have to be eventually added to the list of professionals under the PGA.

Some groups of individuals with specific degrees (like geographers) don’t even have a professional organization. This leaves students with a geography degree out in the cold when it comes to working as professionals in the natural resources sector in BC. Absent recognition under an Act they can’t earn a revocable professional designation and find it very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to become a QP. This severely limits their ability to work in the field as they would need another professional to sign and stamp critical documents for submission to the regulator. Ultimately, they hit a glass ceiling and they can’t rise any higher. 

Role of the College

The College (some groups use different names) is the body that governs each professional organization and serves, and this is the important part, primarily to protect the public interest. They do so by making sure that their members are competent and act in accordance with the rules. They operate the discipline committees and the oversight committees and respond to, and investigate, complaints about members. To serve its roles correctly the College cannot be an advocate for its members but rather an advocate for the public. As presented by the College of Applied Biology

As a governance body, the College does not engage in issue-oriented advocacy, and maintains an apolitical stance, meeting the public interest requirement of the Act through holding its members accountable for their actions.

Serious problems arise when a College forgets its role and tries to be an advocate for its members instead of a protector of the public good. The B.C. College of Teachers can tell you what happens in that case. 

The entire impetus for the new Professional Reliance Review can actually be tracked back to a few instances where public confidence was shaken in the effectiveness of various governing bodies to protect the public interest. The new Office of the Superintendent of Professional Governance is specifically intended to restore the public’s faith in these professional bodies when it comes to the natural resources sector in Canada.

The college is tasked with ensuring that professionals act within professional standards; they don’t act outside their specific area of expertise; they don’t have undisclosed conflicts-of-interest and they act and operate independently of their client and/or government. You may be paid to do a task by your clients and/or you may work for the government but as a professional you have a responsibility to the public good and to behave ethically and the College has to be there to ensure that every professional measures up to that heady standard.

This entire concept is one outsiders often don’t understand. They imagine that environmental consultants act as advocates for their clients. Nothing could be further from the truth. A consultant who advocates solely for their client will soon cease to be able to operate as a consultant once their professionals lose their revocable professional designations and the government refuses to accept their submissions.  

Right to Title and Right to Practice

There are two critical features in the new PGA, the “right to title” and the “right to practice” although under the new PGA they refer to it as “exclusivity of reserved titles and right of practice of reserved practice”. What “reserved title” means for a biologist is that once the Act is in force in BC you won’t be allowed to wander around calling yourself an “Independent Biologist” unless you are Registered with the College of Applied Biology. Similarly, the practice of Biology, in a professional sense, will be restricted to those who are deemed qualified by the College to practice biology.

This exclusive right to title and practice is intended to restore faith in the public by preventing people from claiming expertise that they cannot back up. It has long been understood that you can’t wander around acting as a doctor or a lawyer without a license, but there are lots of individuals, often with few or no credentials, who actively go around calling themselves Biologists because they took a biology class or two in university. This Act will end that practice. 

As a Professional Biologist, I will be glad when these self-named “Biologists” are required to get registered to continue their activities. I will be glad that they will be held accountable to a code of ethics and must demonstrate that they are conflict-of-interest free. Finally, I won’t have to cringe when I see a “Biologist” on television making statements that are demonstrably false with no one is able to hold them professionally responsible for their misinformation.

Under the new rules all biologists will have to play by the same set of ethical rules. I know it will be a big shock for the free-lancers out there but it certainly serves the public interest to have fully trained and vetted biologists as the ones supplying biological inputs to environmental policy processes. For too long activists, on both sides, have been able to counter facts with rhetoric and hyperbole and it will be nice when we have an even playing field to work with.    

As you can probably tell, I am a fan of the new model because as the government press release points out

The B.C. government has introduced legislation aimed at making sure decisions affecting the province’s natural resources are science-based, transparent and protect B.C.’s unique environment for future generations.

The first step in effective evidence-based decision-making is obtaining defensible and reliable data. Transparent and conflict-of-interest free professionals should serve as the source of that data.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A primer on Professional Governance in the Natural Resources Sector

  1. Tyler says:

    So the NDP has actually accomplished something of merit in their time in office, well I’m sure their handling of this situation with Plecas will undermine any goodwill earned.


  2. Pingback: Academics getting it wrong about the role of private sector consultants in BC’s Environmental Assessment processes | A Chemist in Langley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.