President of the IFoA Fiona Morrison believes uncluttered thought can produce better results for actuaries
December 2013 saw the start of the largest outbreak of Ebola in history. Throughout 2014/15 our TV screens and newspapers were full of harrowing images of the impact of this deadly virus which, it has been estimated, has taken the lives of 11,000 individuals and infected a further 28,000. Despite the disease being identified more than 40 years ago, at the time of the outbreak there were no proven drugs or vaccines against the virus.
It was recently reported in the medical journal, The Lancet, that the sheer scale of the 2014/15 outbreak led to an unprecedented push on vaccines. A decade's work was condensed into around 10 months, resulting in a vaccine that has led to 100% protection in a clinical trial conducted in Guinea, where the outbreak originally started.
The World Health Organization described the findings of the trial as a 'game changer'. This was a sentiment echoed by the likes of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Médecins Sans Frontières and the medical charity Wellcome Trust, all of whom were involved in the international collaboration which led to the development of the vaccine.
The Ebola outbreak might seem a strange subject to write about in the president's column. However, my inspiration for highlighting this issue is twofold. First was our very own Longevity Bulletin, published last month. This latest edition promotes the research our members are doing in the field of pandemics, working alongside academics and scientists, demonstrating the value our professional skills can bring to solving some of the world's biggest challenges.
Second, a relative of mine, Dr Georgios Pollakis of the University of Liverpool, recently had his research on the evolution of the Ebola virus published in the journal Nature. He has spent his career in AIDS research, but has now applied his skillset to a new area that again is very much in the public interest.
What really stood out for me, as I read the Ebola vaccine story was how professionals had worked collaboratively in the public interest to combine their knowledge, experience and expertise to help prevent a future epidemic or, even worse, a pandemic.
As an actuary, it is a positive reminder of why acting in the public interest is at the heart of our Royal Charter, and all we do.
Closer to home, the benefit of collaboration and promoting diversity of ideas was highlighted by a recent Council meeting guest speaker, recommended to us by our corporate secretary, Kimberley Russell. Jamie Smart, author of the bestselling book Clarity, gave an insightful presentation on how clear thinking, and embracing the diversity of ideas, could help with Council's 'strategy refresh' deliberations.
Smart introduced his book by saying: "If a pond is clouded with mud, there's nothing you can do to make the water clear. But when you allow the mud to settle, it will clear on its own, because clarity is the water's natural state." He contended, if we as Council allow our 'mud' to settle, clarity will emerge and we will discover we have all we need for the job in hand.
What really leapt out at me, as I listened to Smart, was that clarity of thinking is key to solving the big issues that we face if we want to create a sustainable future for our profession and the generations of actuaries that will follow. Smart tried to get us to think about this concept of clarity through the use of a simple formula: clarity = capacity - contamination. It is important that we give ourselves the space to think (capacity), and ensure that our mental clarity is not contaminated by habitual ways of thinking, limiting beliefs, or even the daily distractions of email and social media. By giving ourselves uncontaminated capacity, we will improve our strategy discussions, and generate better outcomes for our profession.
What the presentation drove home, as we started to debate the refresh of our education strategy, was the importance of clarity of thinking, and of engaging with external stakeholders to ensure that our qualifications deliver professionals with the right skills that industry and businesses want and need.
If we get this right, our job of promoting actuaries, and the value we bring to business, and society more generally, will be made considerably easier.