AXA pumps more cash into scientific research

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Businesses can no longer rely on actuarial work done in the past if they want to accurately predict future risks, according to AXA, the global financial firm.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Godefroy Beauvallet, head of the AXA Research Fund, said that as far as issues like climate change, ageing and pandemics are concerned, new strategies are needed to predict their impact on people and the planet.

The AXA Research Fund was founded in 2007 with an initial budget of 100m euros spread over six years. It provides grants to support research into environmental, socio-economic and life risks. Earlier in the summer, AXA announced it was adding another 100m euros to this pot of philanthropic money, to be spent over the next six years.

Monies are divvied up between scientists working across a wide variety of disciplines. Rather than continuing to fund research across a very general number of subjects, the new tranche of investment will be funnelled into specific areas of research.

Mr Beauvallet said: “[For issues such as] climate change, you can’t rely on actuarial work in the past. It’s the same on ageing. We feel this is a very specific moment in time and it’s important for everyone to push the scientific agenda.”

He added: “It was felt that it was important that AXA be a part of this exploration. We also felt it was important that the academics doing the exploring are absolutely legitimate. Their results are in no way tainted by the money used to produce them.”

One beneficiary of the fund is Peter Knippertz, professor of meteorology at Leeds University. Professor Knippertz received a 450,000 euros grant to further his work on climate forecast models, in particular the risks associated with cyclones and extreme storms.

Mr Beauvallet said: “As an insurance company, you work for your clients in providing them protection. Protection is about understanding risks and mitigating and overcoming those risks.

“To do that you need to have an understanding of the frequency and severity of each of the risks that you cover.”

Since its inception, grants from the fund have benefited 367 projects led by researchers from 49 nationalities working in more than 150 universities in 27 countries across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Of the original 100m euros, 14m euros went to Britain.

In May, the AXA Research Fund appointed Professor Thomas Kirkwood, dean of ageing at Newcastle University and director of the Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age, as president of its Scientific Board.

Professor Kirkwood said: “The AXA Research Fund is a valuable private partner for fundamental research.

“It works hand in hand with some of the world’s greatest research institutions, providing long-term funding and support to help the researchers in their work.

“I am proud to take on the role of president of the scientific board, which is a distinguished group of highly talented people.”

Although the fund does not involve itself directly in what the scientists investigate or how they study, it does expect them to make sure people know about the results.

Looking ahead, the fund is going to increase its efforts to help scientists share their knowledge with a broader audience. The company says it wants to nurture public debate on the risks threatening our societies.

Mr Beauvallet, formerly chief financial officer at Institut Telecom, said: “When the fund was set up in 2007, we felt that academics were the people in charge of this collective exploration of [risk], of new risks and of existing risks. This is important for society. We can’t rely on the past to predict future risks.”

Some 80 per cent of the AXA funding is awarded following open applications while 20 per cent is distributed by special committees composed of academ- ics.

In a departure from its previous focus, the priorities for the new tranche of funding will be privacy, extreme events in the context of climate change and ageing. Also on the agenda is scrutiny of the early stages of human pandemics found in animals and the root causes of geographical destabilisation.

Henri de Castries, chairman and chief executive of AXA, said: “We hope our efforts will ensure that public policies, particularly in terms of investment and prevention choices, are designed according to the most accurate and recent scientific knowledge.

“In an environment where there are more and more global risks and continuous changes at a rapid pace, strengthening the dialogue between researchers and the public and private spheres has become of utmost importance.”