Canadian Consulting Engineer

Why don’t they listen?

One of the most telling comments to emerge from the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada annual meeting in May came as an aside during lunch. Guest speaker Stephen S. Mayer, P.E. of the Peace...

June 1, 2000  By Bronwen Ledger

One of the most telling comments to emerge from the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada annual meeting in May came as an aside during lunch. Guest speaker Stephen S. Mayer, P.E. of the Peace Bridge Authority had finished his talk about their thwarted plans to expand this crucial crossing, when he threw his hands up in exasperation. He said, the most frustrating thing about the costly delays was the fact that the engineers are not being heard. Instead, he said, “junk science” is holding sway. The media, the public and the politicians, he said, are listening to amateur environmentalists and activists rather than paying attention to the studies of qualified engineers. The delays are costing millions of dollars in aborted designs and associated studies, while a bridge between Canada and the U.S. that carries $700 million in trade a day, threatens to be so clogged it will soon be impassable.

Engineers are always complaining that the public doesn’t give them their due. Indeed, I don’t think there is one conference I have been to since I became editor of this magazine where I haven’t heard the mantra, “We have to improve our public image.”

In Ontario engineers have finally decided to do something serious to raise their profile. They have voted to set up an advocacy organization that is separate from the regulatory body PEO (see page 6). A leaflet that went out before the vote, said the new organization “will become the voice of the profession, regularly heard on issues of public concern.”

Dare we hope, then, that this new organization will speak out in situations like the Walkerton fiasco in May? This small town’s water supply was so seriously contaminated it created conditions reminiscent of the Third World. A quarter of the population was stricken, several people died, and everyone was without a good supply for weeks. Here was an unprecedented opportunity to show how critical it is to have sound engineering and a well-funded infrastructure. It was a time to point out that government cuts made too deep and with inadequate checks and policies, can have serious repercussions down the line.

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Unless the advocacy organization is willing to step into the media spotlight and take a position on this kind of occasion, the public’s view of engineers is not going to change. The public pricks up its ears when it hears the environmental activists speak because it believes they have the community’s interests at heart. Engineers, on the other hand, seldom speak out except as representatives of their clients or their employers. Until now, the public hardly ever hears engineers as an independent and objective voice, and is not used to hearing them speak out altruistically about what is best for the greater good.

The new advocacy organization presents an opportunity to change that situation. It must communicate clearly, in a language everyone understands rather than engineering reportese. It must address the issues that are of greatest public concern: the environment and health. And sometimes it must be willing to risk the ire of individual members by taking a controversial position. Unless it does so, the public will suspect that engineers are only interested in protecting their own turf, and people like Mayer will continue to find that their opinions and reports are being ignored.Bronwen Ledger

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