05 Jun 2014   |   News

Corporate research grants – with almost no strings attached

The €200 million AXA Research Fund backs fundamental science linked to health, environmental and socio-economic risks

When Columbia University professor Adam Sobel came calling on French insurance giant AXA to seek support for a new research centre on extreme weather and climate science, he hadn’t been to Paris for 25 years and he knew no one at AXA. But members of the scientific board of the AXA Research fund knew Sobel. They already had selected him for a no-strings-attached €250,000 award.

“It was amazing” recalls Sobel, who spent 20 minutes telling an AXA fund official about his work before she bowled him over with the news that he had won the AXA Research Award and would soon be receiving a cheque. “What’s great about a project like this is that the use of the funds is not restricted,” Sobel says.

Most companies that fund academic research expect proprietary knowledge or intellectual property in return. But AXA’s aim is to advance understanding of major societal risks. “Compared to most private donors, we are the most academic – there are very few strings attached to the money,” says Godefroy Beauvallet, head of the AXA Research Fund and a former assistant professor at Telecom ParisTech.

Launched as a scientific philanthropy initiative in 2007, the AXA Research Fund focuses on three key fields: human health and ageing, environment and climate change, and socio-economic behaviour risks. To date, the €200 million fund has committed €114 million to 410 academic research programmes in 30 countries.  

The latest award, announced on 26 May, went to the ETH Zurich Foundation for a €4 million professorship in risk and reliability engineering. The chair will be held by Giovanni Sansavini, a professor of reliability and risk engineering. This year’s AXA grants also included a €3 million endowment for a permanent AXA Chair in Alzheimer’s disease research at the Université Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris. Professor of neurology Harald Hampel who will hold the chair, aims to explore the use of biomarkers both in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease before the onset of overt symptoms and in the development of new treatments.

Think boldly

In 2013, AXA’s scientific board expanded its programme to include two €250,000 awards to support scientists such as Sobel who show high potential to innovate and break new ground. Because there are no demands for specific publishable results, the winners are free to think boldly. “It means you can take more risk in framing the research,” Sobel says.

Peer-reviewers who typically screen scientific grant applications tend to avoid proposals for research that does not build on previous findings. When it comes to seeking grants, “The further ahead you think, the more likely you are to get into trouble,” says Sobel. “Research proposals based on radically new ideas are likely to meet skepticism.”

Of course, AXA benefits indirectly from the creation of new knowledge by being better able to understand and evaluate new risks. Climate change, dementia and financial market meltdowns are just some of the 21st century challenges that pose huge and incalculable risks for individuals and society. 

“The old actuarial way of assessing risk is no good anymore,” says Beauvallet. “We are at a moment when you can no longer do risk management if you don’t reexamine the basis of the risk you cover.”

The scientific board of AXA’s Research Fund started down that path by mapping research fields on risk-related topics across international scientific literature. The board canvassed more than 200,000 articles that contained “risk” in the abstract.

Transformational projects

By sharing researchers’ knowledge as widely as possible, AXA hopes to help markets better assess risk over time, Beauvallet says. The French insurer not only publishes the findings of its grantees, it also trains them to communicate to non-expert audiences and organises public roundtable debates.

An April roundtable debate in Paris focused on flood risk: Floods, a New Landscape (hyperlink to debate: http://www.axa-research.org/annual-celebration-thematic-conference-floo…).  “Flood is a business term,” says Beauvallet. “But when it comes to the science, it’s a crossover topic which involves hydrology, climate change and meteorology.”  The next series of public lectures by AXA grant winners will be June 18-20 in Paris.

In common with the European Research Council grants launched in 2007, AXA’s Research Fund grants seek to support research excellence through competitive funding. Both organisations award grants purely on merit. The scientific board of the AXA fund looks for “transformational or innovative projects” – as well as a scientist’s ability to contribute to public debate and advance understanding.

To promote greater social dialogue around its scientific research results, AXA this year added a new €300,000 “AXA Outlook” prize to support, “an innovative approach to engaging civil society with science.”  That award went to Katrina Brown, an environmental social scientist Exeter University in the UK, for cross-cultural research on resilience, poverty and climate change.

Overcoming mistrust                                

Initially, Beauvillet and his team had to work hard to overcome academics’ mistrust of corporate research, especially in Europe, where university researchers worry they are betraying their mission if they engage in applied research. But seven years of roadshows and conferences has helped spread the word about the AXA Fund’s no-strings grants – attracting world class researches like Hampel. The growing pool of 410 AXA grantees is now publishing an article every other day, says Beauvallet. “We are creating a community of researchers interested in risk.”

AXA Chairman and CEO Henri de Castres launched the AXA Research Fund as a response to the growing consensus across Europe that universities needed to do more to leverage their excellent research through partnerships with companies to deliver concrete benefits to society.

“When we stared in 2007, there were two misconceptions,” Beauvallet says. Academics worried they would betray their mission if they did applied research. And they believed corporate research was narrowly limited to answering business questions.”  One lesson AXA has learned is that researchers are always keen to share expertise with private companies’ experts, as long as it is a win-win relationship and the expectations are clearly stated, says Beauvallet.

The idea of funding research as corporate philanthropy is not new. But companies typically channel their efforts through separate non-profit foundations. “I wish more companies would think like this,” says Sobel, describing the flexibility of the AXA Fund award as “pretty rare” in the private sector. “Their view makes sense if you have a very global view and a long time horizon.”

Sobel plans to use the AXA award to study the dynamics of extreme precipitation, as well as global climate patterns of extreme events including hurricanes and tornadoes.

The second winner of the 2014 AXA Research Fund award for €250,000 went to Miia Kivipelto, a professor of clinical geriatric epidemiology at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, for research on the role of lifestyle in cognitive and everyday functioning at older ages.