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.