Sarah Pearson, Chief Innovation Officer & Chief Scientist, Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

By Medha Basu

Women in GovTech Special Report 2019.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I work in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), where we work hard to contribute towards peace, prosperity and security for Australia and our region. Our work encompasses foreign affairs and policy, trade, and international development.

My role as Chief Scientist and Chief Innovation Officer is responsible for leading, developing and scaling the Science and Innovation practice and culture across DFAT and through whole of government activity.

Examples of the sort of work I and my team engage in includes: supporting entrepreneurs in developing innovative solutions to challenges such as nutrition and education in developing world contexts; building innovation ecosystems to support the growth of many startups; engaging in blended finance to support new ideas, through our partnership with the Global Innovation Fund (GIF).

We also partner with the private sector to help those living in poverty; utilise science and technology (such as our partnership with the Atlassian Foundation supporting people with ideas to help youth engage in the future of work); connect DFAT with the Australian science base; giving talks and meeting key stakeholders nationally and internationally to get the world to appreciate Australia’s science and innovation based economy; help DFAT to take on more innovative ways of working such as Agile and Human Centred Design; and collaborate across the Australian government to ensure global opportunities for Australian science and technology are realised.

A current example is our support for Educational Initiatives (EI) through our partnership with GIF. EI uses data to benchmark the learning level of every student and customises material to match the level and rate of progress made by each individual student.

It can also analyse data to identify patterns of errors, and precisely target content to overcome learning obstacles that may be difficult for teachers to address with each individual student. A recent trial found that appraised students experienced double the test score gains of the control group in math, and 2.5 times the gains in Hindi language.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2019?

There are so many it’s hard to know where to start. But I think the most exciting technology I have worked on this year is through another role I have – as a member of the investment committee for Main Sequence Ventures. We back deep-tech founders that are inventing tomorrow, helping to build new industries in Australia.

Our investments span the internet of things, big data, AI, quantum technology, space, and more. My favourite has to be Gilmour Space, which is developing next-generation low cost rocket launches with the vision to get us to Mars.

What is the best thing you have experienced in your career?

I think one of the many highlights was sitting at a computer console thirty years ago in Oxford, while my colleagues at CERN typed a message to me, delivering one letter at a time to my screen. This was the beginning of the World Wide Web!

The other was an ‘aha’ moment when taking my first microscopy image of breast cancer biopsy samples. I was told my method would not work, but it did, we patented it, and started to use Artificial Intelligence to build a diagnostic tool.

I also really enjoyed being ‘Mrs Willy Wonka’ at Cadbury, leading them into developing an innovation strategy for confectionery.

And lastly, hearing entrepreneurs in developing countries feeling empowered to solve their own social challenges using commercial models, employing people and building their economy at the same time.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2019, what would it be?

Take time to reflect on your impact and learn from your experiences. Too often I race from one goal to another, forgetting to look back on outcomes that have come about from my action, or seeking input into how to improve.

The world of international development has to measure its outcomes to demonstrate effective use of public money, and use learning frameworks to ensure it learns from its experience. It’s been good for me to engage in this.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2020?

AI, the Internet of Things and Big Data are set to have a massive impact on all parts of our economy. It will be interesting to see how Australia manages our engagement nationally and internationally on these. We need to bring the population along with the science and innovation; we need to ensure the code is ethical and inclusive; and we need to partner with other countries to help us to reach scale.

What are your priorities for 2020?

In 2020 I am moving to a new role, working with the Queensland government to help them build new jobs and an economy based on emerging technology. My priorities there will be to do my best to make sure the new economy is inclusive and reaches well beyond the city of Brisbane.

I am also taking up a role as part of an advisory group for our space agency on industry opportunities and am really looking forward to contributing to and learning more about Australia’s space opportunities.

And my forever priority will be to encourage women into STEM and the new innovation based economy.

What is one challenge you would like to take on in 2020?

I think starting my new job will give me more than enough challenge for 2020.

What has been your fondest memory from the past year? 

My fondest memory of 2019 will be the marriage of my eldest son. He and his fiancé get married this month. I am thrilled to see their happiness and look forward to all the family times with them in the future.