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.

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