Does science sell?

Time to take a deep breath – this is going to be hard. As a journalist, I’m about to do the unthinkable and praise a rival newspaper.

Earlier this month, The Times published Eureka, a monthly magazine boasting coverage of “Science. Life. The Planet”. The 60-page launch issue included: an article on “Fifteen ideas to blow your mind and shape your world”; reports on bacteria in your intestines and on when Usain Bolt and other athletes will reach their limits; and a giant picture of cotton bales that looked more like a field of cauliflower.

The London-based newspaper used the launch of the magazine to remind readers of its track record in covering science, enlisting the ghosts of Alfred Nobel, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and even HG Wells to present its case.

There’s no arguing that “The Thunderer” has an impressive track record when it comes to science coverage – but what’s even more important is where the newspaper appears to be going next.

Standing on a platform at London King’s Cross underground station, my gaze wandered to the giant advertising hoarding on the curved wall. At least three of the posters featured the newspaper under its “Be Part of The Times” slogan.

In a nutshell, the paper is presenting itself as a purveyor of serious news. So one poster pictured a Japanese man dancing with a robot, with an exploration about the number of automatons in the country’s workforce, while another showed sheet ice on a dark sea, illustrating the melting of the polar icecap and the opening up of new water lanes to private shipping and public debates over sovereignty and access.

But one in particular caught my eye; it claimed that The Times has more science and environment correspondents than rivals The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail or The Independent. Now, I have to hold my hands up and admit I’ve not poured over the pages or websites of these publications to tot up the number of journalists each title can muster.

But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if the claim is true or not – the point is that The Times is selling itself on the basis of its science coverage. The newspaper is recognising the desire out there in the real world to read about science; a thirst for stories to inspire your imagination and make you go “Wow”.

Other posters boasted about the number of foreign correspondents and its “oceans correspondent”. While the wee boy inside me still sniggers at the mad idea of having the job title “oceans correspondent” on your business cards, there’s a serious point in there about selling your science coverage.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists in London over the summer, we heard from journalists from throughout the United States and Europe who told stories about their colleagues’ jobs being axed. While I’m sure that the science staff at The Times would moan along with the rest of us about their lack of time, lack of staff and lack of resources, at least their title has realised that science can sell papers.

I recently interviewed Professor Anne Glover, chief scientific advisor to the Scottish Government, for my newspaper, The Scotsman. As a business reporter, I was keen to talk about the interface between science and commerce, but our conversation soon turned to enthusing the public about science.

Professor Glover praised The Scotsman for its coverage but said she worried about the lack of dedicated specialists writing about science in the broader Scottish media. While I don’t think journalists should be cheerleaders for science, I do recognise the importance of a scientific-literate populous – and it’s good to see that some newspapers are even prepared to use their science coverage as a selling point.

Where does science end and business begin?

Where does science end and business begin? That’s a question I ask myself on a daily basis in my role as a business reporter at The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper. While my day-to-day work involves writing news stories and features for the business pages in the paper, I also contribute to Saturday’s science and environment pages – so I always keep an eye out for tales that could perhaps work in both contexts.

AlphaGalileo also appears to be interested in this topic – the European research news service is about to launch a business news strand because “the connection between research and wealth creation is fundamental to creating a knowledge-based society”.

The science and business question is also popping up again and again in the public policy arena: as the recession puts a squeeze on the Treasury, politicians and civil servants are keen for universities to demonstrate how their scientific research benefits taxpayers’ everyday lives – and how their work can be commercialised.

Scotland’s universities and research institutions have an enviable record when it comes to both teaching and scientific study; as a nation, we always punch above our weight when it comes to academic papers published per head of population and other standard measures.

Now it would appear that the support we give to our researchers to commercialise their ideas is also being used as a yard-stick. In Canada, Ontario’s provincial government has been studying the model used by economic development agency Scottish Enterprise to invest in emerging technology companies.

Government investment will match payments made by small-to-medium private sector investors in return for an equity stake in the companies being supported. Scottish Enterprise said that New Zealand’s government copied the model back in 2006.

As well as the co-investment fund, other Scottish models also seem to be paying dividends: one example comes in the form of BigDNA, a company based near Edinburgh, which is developing a method for delivering DNA-based vaccines using bacterial viruses. Its development began with “proof of concept” funding from Scottish Enterprise, followed by an enterprise fellowship for its founder, Dr John March, paid for by Scottish Enterprise and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

BigDNA is now taking on more staff and we wait to see if it can break through the development barrier and into full-scale production – a tough task for any company. Another Edinburgh-based firm to watch out for is ImmunoSolv, which recently signed its first distribution contract for a pair of kits that identify and remove dead cells from laboratory experiments, speeding up efficiency. The firm also benefited from “proof of concept” funding and a “Smart” development award from devolved administration in Scotland.

While all of these developments make for good business stories, it’s important for me not to lose sight of their science credentials too.

And the difference between the two? I have to judge these business-cum-science stories on their merits – a story can’t just make it into the paper because it has science in it. The tale must be subjected to the same rigorous rules we would apply to any other story, whether it be in sport, the arts or politics.

So if the story concerns the launch of a new company or a big development for an existing firm then it will make a good business story – and if it’s an interesting piece of science without an immediate commercial benefit then it would probably sit more comfortably on the sciences pages. But each story must contain something “new”, the fact at the very heart of any newspaper.