Dr Sarah Pearson
Along the way she was head of Open Innovation at Cadbury, a consultant for high tech companies at Mckinsey &Co, and set up the Canberra Innovation Network before being hand picked to wear two important hats within Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). In 2015, Dr Pearson was part of an International Reference Group that helped establish DFAT'S innovationxchange program after then-foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, decided she wanted to inject innovation into Australia's aid program. In 2018, she was asked to formally join DFAT to take the reins of the program and to fill the dual roles of Chief Innovation Officer and the department's Chief Scientist. AQ chats to one of the country's leading innovation experts on the growing importance of science and technology to the Australian government's diplomatic arm and how they can be used for aid, relationship building and to achieve Agenda 2030.
Some people might wonder what a particle physicist is doing in Foreign Affairs. Why is Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) of interest to the diplomatic arm of the government?
From a foreign policy perspective STI is a value proposition that we can utilise for partnerships with other countries. We can use STI as door openers, to be able to say to people overseas: “Yes, we have a modern, creative, innovationbased economy”. That helps build trust which you can then build on to open doors for other conversations.
This is, in essence, science diplomacy - how can we tell the story of the great science, technology and innovation that we have in Australia. This, again, builds trust, builds credibility and changes people's view of Australia. I think at the moment there are a number of countries that think we are just a source of resources and great beaches.
But actually we have an innovative economy and world-class research that we need to be telling people more about.
What role do you play in this at DFAT?
I have both the Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Scientist hats, as an expert rather than a traditional public servant, and as such I provide a voice for, and connectivity to, science and innovation in DFAT. For me, that's very much the optimistic perspective, leading on the opportunity perspective around science and innovation.
For the countries we engage with, the big piece of work I particularly enjoy is helping countries in the Indo-pacific to build Sti-based economies for social
If 75% of future high-growth jobs need STEM and 65% of those jobs don’t even exist yet, women are going to miss out on both those fronts if we don’t ensure they have access to opportunities now.
and economic impact. For example, at DFAT'S innovationxchange, we run a program called Scaling Frontier Innovation, where we're helping to build the social entrepreneurship infrastructure across the Indo-pacific.
The program builds the capability of 31 accelerators in 19 countries across the Indo-pacific. We have connected them with global best practice and tailored specific programs for each one to help build them into world-class accelerators.
You helped establish DFAT’S innovationxchange and now you oversee it directly, what has this programme achieved?
Since 2015, the innovationxchange has run 11 global challenges using an open innovation approach, and we've accessed 3000 ideas, investing in just over 140 of those ideas, which are having an impact in 56 countries. We find entrepreneurs around the world who can solve social challenges and we help and empower them to build social solutions using a commercial model.
We've also invested in the Global Innovation Fund, which is a $200 million impact-first venture capital fund, and a partnership between us, the US, the UK, Canada, Sweden and the Omidyar network.
And for every dollar we've invested, the start-ups have crowded in an additional 4.3 dollars of investment. There's not enough money around to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) so by leveraging other people's resources from a wide range of sectors, we are giving ourselves a greater chance of achieving Agenda 2030.
Do you have any projects of your own that you’re keen to implement in the role?
The Scaling Frontier Innovation program is somewhat of a legacy piece for me. I suggested it when I was a member of Julie Bishop's International Reference Group and the team here took it up.
But I'd really like to talk about gender. For instance, in the work we do around the Scaling Frontier Innovation program, we have ensured a gender lens is used on all of the programs we deliver. We're acutely aware that not only are women under-represented in science, they are also under-represented in entrepreneurship.
If 75% of future high-growth jobs need STEM and 65% of those jobs don't even exist yet, women are going to miss out on both those fronts if we don't ensure they have access to opportunities now.
But domestically, we're pretty excited in Australia because we have a Chief Scientist in CSIRO who's a woman, the Department of Industry has a female Minister, in Defence we have a female Minister and a female Chief Scientist, and here in DFAT we have a female Chief Scientist and a female Minister.
There's been a lot of work done to encourage women into science but the role model piece is really important. It's important to show that, yes, you can be in leadership in science and be a woman, and actually be a woman.