Many are familiar with the often-used aphorism “knowledge is power.” But is the power of knowledge enough to save the world? According to Isabelle Bergeron, Head of Communications for the AXA Research Fund, scientific breakthroughs could in fact help solve the problems we will face in the coming century. Supporting and leveraging science that focuses on anticipating and mitigating major risks is probably our best insurance policy for a brighter future, she says.
“Rather than just cover the damage caused by human activities or natural catastrophes, AXA is working to prevent, anticipate and limit our society’s current and future points of vulnerability by supporting scientific research,” explains Isabelle. “We believe that by funding risk research projects and accelerating innovation, we can help to ensure that there are fewer issues downstream, whether medical, technological, socio-economic, or environmental. As a global insurer, AXA already offers protection in all these major areas. Supporting risk science goes hand in hand with managing risks.”
AXA has already committed significant funding – 250 million euros - to over 650 research projects from leading institutions located all around the world. Yet the mission of the AXA Research Fund, a unique global scientific philanthropy initiative, is not just to accelerate scientific knowledge through funding but to get it out of the lab for the benefit of the majority, as Isabelle puts it.
The company is also an active communicator with respect to the research it supports. “We are not only about giving grants. We actively help share the scientific knowledge obtained with the world, in the hope that it will make the biggest possible impact. We believe that if most decision-makers, public figures, stakeholders, and even companies are made aware of the science, they will work together to limit the impact of future risks.”
As part of the process, Isabelle encourages researchers to recognize the value of being a good communicator. Through media training, events, and media partnerships, the AXA Research Fund promotes dialogue between scientists, experts, and the media. “We are facilitators more than organizers. We engage researchers and give them the means and opportunities to fuel the debate.”
She adds, “We often work with science journalists so that the information comes across effectively. As a non-scientist myself, I recognize the limitations of not understanding the complexity of the science. To avoid confusion, we call upon specialized communicators.”
The ever-growing phenomenon of fake news is driving a clear need for real facts and solid research publications. In times of crisis, such as with the current global pandemic, there is often pressure on the scientific community to design and communicate rapidly public policies. However, assessing scientific knowledge requires an understanding of the rigors of scientific methodology and the time it takes for discoveries to happen. To reduce misunderstandings and manage expectations, Isabelle says that “the media should increasingly refer to science but also contextualize scientific method, the evolving nature of scientific knowledge, and the foundations of conflicting ideologies.”
In a society that is force-fed information, expecting people to forage on their own through complicated words in order to understand the underlying concepts can be problematic. Sometimes information needs to be pre-digested for the audience so that the messages come across in a clear, concise way. The goal is to avoid confusion, not create more. In that sense, information on the scientific method should be shared more widely with the general public.
Without well-grounded context, science can quickly disappoint public opinion due to misconceptions. “If we let science go beyond its intended scope and be more than what it can and should be, mistrust follows. And this can quickly become counterproductive,” Isabelle says. The more importance given to communicating about science and the world of research, the more people will understand that science is most often a conundrum, with many pieces of the puzzle to take into account.
According to Isabelle, scientists have a genuine role to play in the making of future policies; as guardians of knowledge, they have a unique ability to drive the evolution in hypotheses and provide basis for decision making. “I believe there should be more long-term, permanent scientific advisers in governments, rather than scattered, ad hoc solicitations, which can cause confusion.”
“Once I invited key figures of the GIEC (IPCC) to raise awareness of climate change among key AXA leaders. It was definitely a trigger in the design of AXA’s climate policy, which blocked particularly adverse investments,” she shares enthusiastically. “It was a fantastic example of how scientists can make an impact on the real world. By inviting science to a dialogue with industry, it was possible to raise awareness of the reality of climate change and get our business leaders to play a more active role in making a difference.”
This is just one example of how powerful and impactful scientific truths can be – as long as the communication channels are transparent and rigorous. We can all make a difference in our own way. For scientists, it lies in both doing and sharing their research. “And there is still so much to discover,” concludes Isabelle. “I find it fascinating there are still so many unknowns we don’t even suspect, just waiting to be discovered.”
This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.