Tag Archives: Neil Branda

A couple of nanoscientists and the Canada Research Chair (CRC) programme

The announcements about Canada’s latest round of Canada Research Chairs were made on Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 (that’s when I received a news release from Simon Fraser University [Vancouver, Canada] about their bonanza). The Canada Research Chairs programme has issued a Mar. 15, 2012 news release but it has no details as to which chairs have been awarded, so I can only offer information from the two agencies touting their nanotechnology chairs.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) had this to say about its latest financial windfall (from the SFU Mar. 15, 2013 news release),

Four Simon Fraser University researchers will gain nearly $2.9 million to continue their research fellowships as Canada Research Chairs in areas as diverse as climate change, marine conservation, children’s health, and nanotechnology.

The funds are part of a $90.6 million injection by the federal government into the Canada Research Chair program, supporting 120 newly awarded and renewed chairs across the country.

Here’s the information about the nanotechnology/materials science chair (from the SFU news release),

Chemistry professor Neil Branda of Chemistry has begun his second seven-year term as SFU’s Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Materials Science.  Operating at the crossroads of organic chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology, his research program involves the design and synthesis of photo-responsive compounds and their integration with nanosystems.

Branda, a recognized leader in materials science and co-founder of SFU’s 4D LABS, heads the Prometheus Project, a collaboration of BC’s research universities that will bring global attention to B.C.’s rich capabilities in this industry-relevant field.

I highlighted some information about Branda and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which had just announced its funding for the Prometheus Project, in a Jan. 15, 2013 posting,

The Federal Government of Canada in the guise of the Canada Foundation for Innovation has just awarded $7.7M to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its partners for a global innovation hub. From the Jan. 15, 2013 Canada Foundation for Innovation news release,

British Columbia’s research-intensive universities are coming together to create a global hub for materials science and engineering. Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have received $7.7 million in funding from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to create the Prometheus Project — a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation and commercialization.

“Our goal with the Prometheus Project is to turn our world-class research capacity into jobs and growth for the people of British Columbia,” said Neil Branda, Canada Research Chair in Materials Science at Simon Fraser University and leader of the Prometheus Project. [emphasis added for Mar. 18, 2013 posting]

According to the Mar. 16, 2013 news item on Azonano there was also an announcement in the province of Alberta,

The Honourable Laurie Hawn, Member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre, today announced an investment of $5.8 million to support eight Canada Research Chairs in Alberta as part of the national announcement made by the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology).

Today’s event featured Dr. Tian Tang, Canada Research Chair in Nano-biomolecular Hybrid Materials at the University of Alberta. Dr. Tang and her team are working to better understand how nano-sized organic and inorganic materials interact. Their research will help future scientists and innovators develop nano-sized machines that could be useful in electronics, computing, manufacturing and health care. This research will help establish Canada’s leadership in this field, which is expected to be one of the most commercially important and fastest-growing areas of health care and engineering in the 21st century.

Congratulations to all the researchers!

Goodish article for beginners—Pangaea Ventures on the state of nanotechnology

Purnesh Seegopaul, General Partner, Pangaea Ventures Ltd., headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, has written a Jan. 21, 2013 posting, The State of Nanotechnology, for the company blog, which offers a good primer on nanotechnology along with a bit of a sales pitch,

Nanomaterials are of particular interest and at Pangaea Ventures, our focused approach on advanced materials gives us an exceptional grasp of leading-edge innovations and emerging companies developing and commercializing nano-enabled products. Engineered nanomaterial building blocks include inorganic nanoparticles, nanofibers, nanowires, quantum dots, nanotubes, nanoporous materials, dendrimers, plasmons, metamaterials, superlattices, metal organic frameworks, clays, nanocomposites, and the carbon-based nanotubes, graphene, fibers, fullerenes, and activated materials. These nanostructures are incorporated in bulk forms, coatings, films, inks, and devices. Graphene, the latest addition to the nanotech toolkit not only garnered the 2010 Nobel Prize (Geim and Nuvoselov [sic]) but also projected to extend Moore’s law in nanoelectronics. Nanobiomedical applications would allow targeted drug delivery in cancer treatment. Of course, nano-enabled products are expected to be competitive in terms of cost, performance and safety.

I do have a problem with Seegopaul’s stance on intellectual property (IP); I reported on the nanotech IP bonanza (4000 in the US for 2012)  in my Jan. 4, 2013 posting,

Companies need to understand that intellectual property is an important consideration and the IP landscape is getting busy. US patent publications in the 977 nanotech class established by the USPTO are expected to reach 4000 in 2012.

Tim Harper, Chief Executive Officer of Cientifica (the company is cited in Seegopaul’s posting) isn’t particularly enthusiastic about patents either, from Harper’s Jan. 15, 2013 posting about graphene (a nanomaterial) on the Cientifica blog, Insight,

The UK has a number of companies producing decent quality graphene – a prerequisite for any applications – and the history of nanotechnology shows us that filing huge numbers of patents is no guarantee of commercial success.

The Cientifica mention in Seegopaul’s posting was made in the context of government funding,

Nanotechnology enjoys generous funding support. Cientifica recently estimated that governments around the world invested $67 billion over the last 11 years and projected $0.25 trillion in investments from all sources by 2015! [emphasis mine] The USA is expected to spend about $1.7 billion in 2012 and $1.8 billion has been requested for 2013. I expect that nations will continue to pour significant funding into nanotechnology.

Tim Harper gave an interview about  his company’s report Global Funding of Nanotechnologies and its Impact that was published in my July 15, 2012 posting.

Seegopaul’s posting is a good introduction, despite my concern over his IP stance, to nanotechnology but the title does seem to be stretching it a bit. Panagaea Ventures has been mentioned here before (May 14, 2010 posting) in the context of a local Vancouver-based smart window company, SWITCH Materials, which was founded by Neil Branda who was himself mentioned here in a Jan. 15, 2013 posting about the Canadian government funding of the Prometheus Project; a global innovation hub at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

Simon Fraser University completes a successful mating dance while TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics) gets its groove on

The Federal Government of Canada in the guise of the Canada Foundation for Innovation has just awarded $7.7M to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its partners for a global innovation hub. From the Jan. 15, 2013 Canada Foundation for Innovation news release,

British Columbia’s research-intensive universities are coming together to create a global hub for materials science and engineering. Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have received $7.7 million in funding from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to create the Prometheus Project — a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation and commercialization.

“Our goal with the Prometheus Project is to turn our world-class research capacity into jobs and growth for the people of British Columbia,” said Neil Branda, Canada Research Chair in Materials Science at Simon Fraser University and leader of the Prometheus Project. “We know that materials science is changing the way we create energy and fight disease. We think it can also help B.C.’s economy evolve.”

This project builds on a strong collective legacy of collaborating with industry. Researchers involved in the Prometheus Project have created 13 spin-off companies, filed 67 patents and have generated 243 new processes and products. [emphasis mine] Branda himself has founded a company called Switch Materials that seizes the power of advanced chemistry to create smarter and more efficient window coatings.

This funding will allow members of the research team to build their capacity in fabrication, device testing and advanced manufacturing, ensuring that they have the resources and expertise they need to compete globally.

There’s a bit more information about the Prometheus project in a Jan.15, 2013 backgrounder supplied by SFU,

Led by Neil Branda, a Canada Research Chair in Materials Science and SFU chemistry professor, The Prometheus Project is destined to become a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation, and commercialization globally.

It brings together 10 principal researchers, including Branda, co-founder of SFU’s 4D LABS (a materials research facility with capabilities at the nanoscale], and 20 other scientists at SFU, University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. They will create new materials science and engineering (MS&E) technology innovations, which will trigger and support sustained economic growth by creating, transforming and making obsolete entire industries.

Working with internationally recognized industrial, government, hospital and academic collaborators, scientists at the Prometheus partners’ labs, including 4D LABS, a $40 million materials science research institute, will deliver innovations in three areas. The labs will:

  • Develop new solar-industry related materials and devices, including novel organic polymers, nanoparticles, and quantum dots, which will be integrated in low cost, high efficiency solar cell devices. The goal is to create a new generation of efficient solar cells that can compete in terms of cost with non-renewable technologies, surpassing older ones in terms of miniaturization and flexibility.
  • Develop miniaturized biosensors that can be used by individuals in clinical settings or at home to allow early detection of disease and treatment monitoring. They will be integrated into flexible electronic skins, allowing health conditions to be monitored in real-time.
  • Develop spintronics (magnetic devices) and quantum computing and information devices that will enable new approaches to significantly improve encrypted communication and security in financial transactions.

“This project will allow B.C.’s four most research intensive institutes to collaborate on fundamental materials research projects with a wide range of potential commercial applications,” notes Branda. “By engaging with a large community of industry, government and NGO partners, we will move this research out of the lab and into society to solve current and future challenges in important areas such as energy, health and communications.”

The Prometheus team already has a strong network of potential end users of resulting technologies. It is based on its members’ relationships with many of more than 25 companies in BC commercializing solar, biomedical and quantum computing devices.

Researchers and industries worldwide will be able to access Prometheus’s new capabilities on an open-access basis. [emphasis mine]

There are a few things I’d like to point out (a) 13 spin-off companies? There’s no mention as to whether they were successful, i.e., created jobs or managed a life beyond government funding. (b) Patents as an indicator for innovation? As I’ve noted many, many times that’s a very problematic argument to make. (c) New processes and products? Sounds good but there are no substantiating details.  (d) Given the emphasis on commercializing discoveries and business, can I assume that open-access to Prometheus’ capabilities means that anyone willing and able to pay can have access?

In other exciting SFU news which also affects TRIUMF, an additional $1M is being awarded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation to upgrade the ATLAS Tier-1 Data Analysis Centre. From the SFU backgrounder,

Led by Mike Vetterli, a physics professor at SFU and TRIUMF, this project involves collaborating with scientists internationally to upgrade a component of a global network of always-on computing centres. Collectively, they form the Worldwide Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid (WLCG).

The Canadian scientists collaborating with Vetterli on this project are at several research-intensive universities. They include Carleton University, McGill University, University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, Université de Montréal, and York University, as well as TRIUMF. It’s Canada’s national lab for particle and nuclear physics research.

The grid, which has 10 Tier-1 centres internationally, is essentially a gigantic storage and processing facility for data collected from the ATLAS  experiment. The new CFI funding will enable Vetterli and his research partners to purchase equipment to upgrade the Tier-1 centre at TRIUMF in Vancouver, where the equipment will remain.

ATLAS is a multi-purpose particle detector inside a massive atom-smashing collider housed at CERN, the world’s leading laboratory for particle physics in Geneva, Switzerland.

More than 3,000 scientists internationally, including Vetterli and many others at SFU, use ATLAS to conduct experiments aimed at furthering global understanding of how the universe was physically formed and operates.

The detector’s fame for being a window into nature’s true inner workings was redoubled last year. It helped scientists, including Vetterli and others at SFU, discover a particle that has properties consistent with the Higgs boson.

Peter Higgs, a Scottish physicist, and other scientists theorized in 1964 about the existence of the long-sought-after particle that is central to the mechanism that gives subatomic particles their mass.

Scientists now need to upgrade the WLCG to accommodate the massive volume of data they’re reviewing to confirm that the newly discovered particle is the Higgs boson. If it is, it will revolutionize the way we see mass in physics.

“This project will enable Canadian scientists to continue to play a leading role in ATLAS physics analysis projects such as the Higgs boson discovery,” says Vetterli. “Much more work and data are required to learn more about the Higgs-like particle and show that it is indeed the missing link to our understanding of the fundamental structure of matter.

There is one more Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to be announced here, it’s a $1.6M grant for research that will be performed at TRIUMF, according to the Jan. 13, 2013 news release from St. Mary’s University (Halifax, Nova Scotia),

Dr. Rituparna Kanungo’s newest research collaboration has some lofty goals: improve cancer research, stimulate the manufacturing of high-tech Canadian-made instrumentation and help explain the origin of the cosmos.

The Saint Mary’s nuclear physicist’s goal moved one step closer to reality today when the federal government announced $1.6 million in support for an advanced research facility that will allow her to recreate, purify, and condition rare isotopes that haven’t existed on the planet for millions of years.

The federal fiscal support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation together with additional provincial and private sector investment will allow the $4.5 million project to be operational in 2015.

“The facility will dramatically advance Canada’s capabilities for isolating, purifying, and studying short-lived isotopes that hold the key not only for understanding the rules that govern the basic ingredients of our everyday lives but also for crafting new therapies that could target and annihilate cancers cell-by-cell within the human body, “ said Dr Kanungo.

The CANadian Rare-isotope facility with Electron-Beam ion source (CANREB) project is led by Saint Mary’s University partnering with the University of Manitoba and Advanced Applied Physics Solutions, Inc. in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, the University of Guelph, Simon Fraser University, and TRIUMF. TRIUMF is Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics. It is owned and operated as a joint venture by a consortium of Canadian universities that includes Saint Mary’s University.

As one of the nation’s top nuclear researchers (she was one of only two Canadians invited to speak at a Nobel Symposium last June about exotic isotopes), Dr. Kanungo has been conducting research at the TRIUMF facility for many years, carrying out analyses from her office at Saint Mary’s University together with teams of students. Her students also often spend semesters at the Vancouver facility.

As the project leader for the new initiative, she said TRIUMF is the ideal location because of its world leading isotope-production capabilities and its ability to produce clean, precise, controlled beams of selected exotic isotopes not readily available anywhere else in the world.

In recent studies in the U.S., some of these isotopes have been shown to have dramatic impact in treating types of cancer, by delivering radioactive payloads directly to the cancerous cells. Canada’s mastery of the technology to isolate, study, and control these isotopes will change the course of healthcare.

An integral part of the project is the creation of a new generation of high resolution spectrometer using precision magnets. Advanced Cyclotron Systems, Inc. a company in British Columbia, has been selected for the work with the hope that the expertise it develops during the venture will empower it to design and build precision-magnet technology products for cutting-edge projects all around the world.

Exciting stuff although it does seem odd that the federal government is spreading largesse when there’s no election in sight. In any case, bravo!

There’s one last piece of news, TRIUMF is welcoming a new member to its board, from its Jan. 14, 2013 news release,

Dr. Sylvain Lévesque, Vice-President of Corporate Strategy at Bombardier Inc., a world-leading manufacturer of innovative transportation solutions, has joined the Board of Management for TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, for a three-year term.  Owned and operated by a consortium of 17 Canadian universities with core operating funds administered via a contribution agreement through National Research Council Canada, TRIUMF is guided by a Board that includes university vice-presidents of research, prestigious scientists, and leading members of Canada’s private sector.

Paul Young, Chair of TRIUMF’s Board and Vice President, Research at the University of Toronto, said, “We welcome the participation of Sylvain and his extensive experience at Bombardier.  TRIUMF is a national resource for basic research and yet we also fulfill a technological innovation mission for Canada.  Dr. Lévesque will be a valuable addition to the Board.”

Dr. Sylvain Lévesque earned his Ph.D. from MIT in Engineering and worked at McKinsey & Company before joining Bombardier in 1999.  He brings deep experience with large, technical organizations and a passion for science and engineering. [emphasis mine]  He said, “I am excited to work more closely with TRIUMF.  It has a track record of excellence and I am eager to provide guidance on where Canada’s industrial sector might draw greater strength from the laboratory.”

TRIUMF’s Board of Management reflects the unique status of TRIUMF, a laboratory operating for more than forty years as a joint venture from Canada’s leading research universities.  The consortium includes universities from Halifax to Victoria.

Is deep experience like wide experience or is it a whole new kind of experience helpful for ‘getting one’s groove on’? For anyone who’s curious, ‘getting one’s groove on’ involves dancing.

Smart windows in The Netherlands and in Vancouver

Michael Berger at Nanowerk has written a good primer on smart windows while discussing a specific project from The Netherlands. From Berger’s article,

‘Smart’ windows, or smart glass, refers to glass technology that includes electrochromic devices, suspended particle devices, micro-blinds and liquid crystal devices. Their major feature is that they can control the amount of light passing through the glass and increase energy efficiency of the room by reducing costs for heating or air-conditioning. In the case of self-powered smart windows the glass even generates the energy needed to electrically switch its transparency.

Smart windows can be electrochromic and/or photochromic. From an article by Alan Chen, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, titled, New Photochromic Material Could Advance Energy-Efficient Windows,

A photochromic material is one that changes from transparent to a color when it is exposed to light, and reverts to transparency when the light is dimmed or blocked. An electrochromic material changes color when a small electric charge is passed through it. Both photochromic and electrochromic materials have potential applications in many types of devices.

As for how both materials could have applications appropriate for windows, Berger’s article describes a smart window that sounds like it’s both electrochromic and photochromics and has the added benefit of being able to power itself,

A new type of smart window proposed by researchers in The Netherlands makes use of a luminescent dye-doped liquid-crystal solution sandwiched in between electrically conductive plates as an energy-generating window.

The dye absorbs a variable amount of light depending on its orientation, and re-emits this light, of which a significant fraction is trapped by total internal reflection at the glass/air interface.

(For more details about this specific project, please read Berger’s full article.)

A few months ago I chanced across a local (Vancouver, Canada-based) start-up company, SWITCH Materials, that features technology for smart windows. From the company website (Technology page),

SWITCH’s advanced materials are based on novel organic molecules that react to both solar and electrical stimulation. Smart windows and lenses are the first commercial application under development at SWITCH. They darken when exposed to the sun and rapidly bleach on command when stimulated by electricity.

While competitive technologies rely on either photochromism or electrochromism, SWITCH’s hybrid technology offers the advantages of both, providing enhanced control and lower cost manufacturing.

• SWITCH’s technology also operates without requiring a continuous charge, and as a result has great potential for significant cost savings in many applications.

• The organic compounds in SWITCH’s materials are thermally stable and remain in their coloured state until electricity reverses the chemical transformation.

As far as I can tell, one of the big differences between this Canadian company’s approach and the Dutch research team’s is the Canadian’s use of organic compounds. Also, one of the key advantages (in addition to the ability to generate electricity) to the Dutch team’s approach is that users can control the window’s transmission of light.

I don’t know how close either the Canadian company (SWITCH) or the Dutch research team is to a commercial application but there is this excerpt from the Jan. 14, 2010 news release (on the Pangaea Ventures website),

SWITCH Materials Inc., an advanced materials company developing energy saving SMART window solutions, has raised $7.5M in Series B financing. The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC Venture Capital) led the investment, with participation from existing investors GrowthWorks, Pangaea Ventures and Ventures West. Proceeds will be used for continuing R&D and to complete product commercialization.

“I am excited that an up and coming Canadian clean tech company will be added to our portfolio,” said Geoff Catherwood, Director of Venture Capital at BDC. “The technology being developed at SWITCH carries tremendous potential to address the burgeoning demand for a new generation of window technology. Producing a SMART window solution that can meet the price point required for significant market penetration will enable SWITCH to gain a leadership position in a large untapped market.” In conjunction with the financing, Mr. Catherwood will join the company’s Board of Directors.

I notice the news release makes no mention of a timeline for possible commercial applications or of competitors for that matter. In addition to the Dutch research team (there’s a Dutch company [I blogged about them here {scroll down}] that is producing something remarkably similar [it too offers control for transmission of light] to the Dutch research team’s smart windows profiled by Berger), there’s competition from the Americans who, recently, through their federal Dept. of Energy invested $72M (a loan guarantee added to previous investments) in SAGE Electrochromics.

The market for windows that could conceivably eliminate or seriously minimize the use of air conditioning is huge. In this era of concern about energy use and climate change, air conditioning is a problem as it uses a tremendous amount of energy, has a significant carbon footprint, and most importantly for business, it is expensive. Think of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Nairobi,  Toronto, New York, Montréal, Chicago, Paris, London, Belgrade, Berlin, etc. during their respective hot seasons and the advantages of smart windows become quite apparent.

One last thing I’d like to mention about the Canadian company, it’s a Simon Fraser University (SFU), spinoff with Neil Branda, director of SFU’s nanotechnology centre, 4D Labs as their chief technical officer. Dr. Branda’s research work was last mentioned on this blog in a posting that featured, SFU scientists their phasers on stun as part of the title.

SFU scientists set their phasers on stun; quantum biology and University of Toronto Chemists; P.R. and science journalism

Neil Branda and his colleagues from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) 4D Labs have demonstrated that animals can be ‘switched off ‘ with exposure to ultra violet light then ‘switched on’ when exposed to standard light. From the news item on Nanowerk,

In an advance with overtones of Star Trek phasers and other sci-fi ray guns, scientists in Canada are reporting development of an internal on-off “switch” that paralyzes animals when exposed to a beam of ultraviolet light. The animals stay paralyzed even when the light is turned off. When exposed to ordinary light, the animals become unparalyzed and wake up.

In more Canadian news, chemists at the University of Toronto have observed quantum mechanics at work with marine algae.  From the news item on Nanowerk,

“There’s been a lot of excitement and speculation that nature may be using quantum mechanical practices,” says chemistry professor Greg Scholes, lead author of a new study published this week in Nature. “Our latest experiments show that normally functioning biological systems have the capacity to use quantum mechanics in order to optimize a process as essential to their survival as photosynthesis.”

Special proteins called light-harvesting complexes are used in photosynthesis to capture sunlight and funnel its energy to nature’s solar cells – other proteins known as reaction centres. Scholes and his colleagues isolated light-harvesting complexes from two different species of marine algae and studied their function under natural temperature conditions using a sophisticated laser experiment known as two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy.

… It also raises some other potentially fascinating questions, such as, have these organisms developed quantum-mechanical strategies for light-harvesting to gain an evolutionary advantage? It suggests that algae knew about quantum mechanics nearly two billion years before humans,” says Scholes.

Is Scholes suggesting the algae are more advanced with science than humans? I find that thought intriguing and perhaps useful if one believes that human beings are remarkably arrogant creatures who can benefit from a little humility.

On a completely different front, I’ve been doing some more thinking about science journalism and science public relations (I did refer to some of it in my series on science communication in Canada on this blog in Sept/Oct 2009 ) after last week’s posting about a science journalism study in the UK. In fact, my thinking on these matters was reignited by a posting Ruth Seeley made on her No Spin PR blog about why she calls her business ‘no spin’ and why she prefers the term ‘framing’,

Implicit in the word spin is the idea that deception is involved, facts are being turned on their heads, and/or there’s so much fast talking going on the truth would be unrecognizable even if it were part of the mix. The ‘truth’ is, it’s as much of an insult to call a public relations practitioner a ’spin doctor’ as it is to call a woman a ‘chick.’ And it is a female-dominated profession, although not yet at the most senior levels.

Despite the cross-fertilization that occurs between journalists and PR practitioners (since writing well is the foundation skill for both professions), there is also the perception that journalists are those who ferret out the truth and present it objectively, while PR folks do their best to deflect, disguise, and distract from the truth. The notion of the muck-racking journalist being free of bias is laughable in the 21st Century. We wouldn’t have populist, right-wing, and left-wing media outlets if bias weren’t inherent in every medium, whether it’s the way the headline is written, the fact that the story is covered at all, or the selective presentation of facts. The notion that objectivity is in disrepute is, thankfully, permeating the zeitgeist – and not a moment too soon.

Whether you view the world through rose-coloured glasses or not, whether you think all politicians are dishonest or revere those who occupy the corridors of delegated power, whether you’re a MacHead or a PC fan, we all have filters we apply to information, and these filters affect our decision-making processes.

There is nothing illegal, immoral, or unethical about choosing a frame. You need to be aware that there’s more than one framing choice. You need to consider the fact that others won’t choose the same frame as you. Ultimately, though, you will have to either pick one or leave the picture unframed. Choosing a frame and developing a strategy for its presentation is the heart of public relations. As a practitioner, aligning yourself with clients whose framing aligns with your beliefs and values is the soul of a successful PR consultancy.

Perception has never been reality. It just appears to be. That, I suspect, is a natural consequence of the human condition.

I mention Ruth in particular because her consultancy seems to be largely focused on science public relations (she does projects for Andrew Maynard [2020 Science] and, as you can see in her post, she is involved with the twitter science community).  Her comments reminded me of a rather provocative posting on Techdirt in May 2009,

One of the most common complaints about the trouble facing newspapers today is the woeful cry “but who will do investigative journalism?” Of course, that’s silly. There are plenty of new entities springing up everyday online that do investigative journalism — and do it well.

Romenesko points us to a column by Tim Cavanaugh taking this concept one step further: suggesting that a subset of PR people may end up taking on the role of investigative journalists . Now, I’m sure plenty of journalists are cringing at the concept — and certainly, as someone who gets bombarded daily with idiotic story pitches that are spun to such ridiculous levels I can only laugh at them (as I hit delete), it makes me cringe a bit. But some of his points are worth thinking about.

I went on to check Tim Cavanaugh’s article and after a brief description of the current publishing crisis and its effect on investigative journalism,

Here’s one hypothesis. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that in the decade from 1998 through 2007, another field was outgrowing, and perhaps growing at the expense of, traditional journalism. The number of people working as “reporters and correspondents” declined slightly in that period, from 52,380 in 1998 to 51,620 in 2007. But the number of public relations specialists more than doubled, from 98,240 to 225,880. (Because job types and nomenclature change substantially, I have used only directly comparable jobs. The U.S. economy was still supporting 7,360 paste-up workers in 1998, for example, while in 2007 some 29,320 Americans were working under the already antique title “desktop publishers.”)

So are flacks the future, or even the present, of investigative journalism? This interpretation makes intuitive sense. Important data points by which we continue to live our lives— the number of jobs that were created or destroyed by NAFTA, the villainy of the Serbs in the Yugoslav breakup, all sorts of projected benefits or disasters in President Obama’s budget plans— are largely the inventions of P.R. workers.

And though it’s considered wise to believe the contrary, these communications types are not constructing all these news items entirely (or even mostly) by lying. Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism. Nor is the teaching value that flackery provides entirely different from that of journalism: Most of the content you hear senators and congressmen reading on C-SPAN is stuff flacks provided to staffers.

The debate itself is not all that new as the relationship between public relations and journalism is at least one century old. One of the earliest PR practitioners was a former journalist, Ivy Lee. As for borrowing from the social sciences (the term framing as used in Ruth’s posting is from the social sciences), that too can be traced backwards, in this case, to the 1920s and Edward Bernays who viewed public relations as having huge potential for social engineering.Towards the end of his life (1891 – 1995) he was quite disappointed, (according Stuart Ewen’s book, PR! A Social History of Spin) in how the field of public relations had evolved. Ewen (wikipedia entry) is highly critical of the profession as per this May 2000 interview with David Barsamian,

Part of why the history of PR is so interesting is because you see that it’s a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality. PR isn’t functioning in a vacuum. PR is usually functioning to try to protect itself against other ideas that are percolating within a society. So under no circumstances should what I’m saying about Bernays in terms of the use of social psychology indicate that these are automatic processes that always work. They don’t always work. They don’t always work because to some extent, despite what [Walter] Lippman said, people don’t just function by pictures in their heads. They also experience things from their own lives. Often their experiences are at odds with the propaganda that’s being pumped out there.

As you can see, for Ewen PR is synonymous with propaganda which, by the way, was the title for a book by Edward Bernays.

I’ve worked in public relations and in marketing and find that the monolithic claims made by folks such as Ewen have elements of truth but that much of the analysis is simplistic. That said, I think the criticism is important and quite well placed as there have been some egregious and deeply false claims made by PR practitioners on behalf of their clients. Still, it bothers me that everyone is contaminated by the same brush.  Getting back to Ruth’s post: In a sense, we are all PR professionals. All of us choose our frames and we constantly communicate them to each other.

Happy weekend.