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James Weatherall, vice-president of data science and AI, R&D, AstraZeneca

James Weatherall

Path to power

I started life as a high energy particle physicist, pondering the subtle differences between matter and anti-matter, and how they might affect the universe. This saw me acting as a “data scientist” working on “big data” many years before those terms were coined.

 

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the field, I went into consultancy with Tessella – who specialised in scientific software engineering and analytics. This broadened my horizons across a range of sectors, including petrochemicals, consumer goods, robotics and the life sciences.

 

I moved to AstraZeneca in 2007, keen to take my rich skillset of mathematics, computing and science, and apply that in an area which can directly benefit people’s health and wellbeing. Initially I was a biomedical informatics scientist, and then quickly took on positions of increasing leadership and strategic responsibility.

 

First was leading the biomedical informatics team globally, then assuming a senior role leading a new department called the Advanced Analytics Centre, in AZ R&D. I have been in my current role since last year, leading end-to-end capabilities from data governance and standards, through tools and infrastructure, to AI and modelling.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

In short, it is being appointed to my latest role. I have always been driven by the ability to provide more value for patients, by having an ever wider strategic impact on the power of data to transform lives. I couldn’t be prouder or feel more privileged, or more humbled than to be in my current position – which is the job of a lifetime.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

As a physicist I was always inspired by the American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. He was inscrutably honest and objective, a brilliant intuitionist, and never afraid to do things differently in order to push the boundaries. His career spanned from the Manhattan Project to the Challenger space shuttle investigation.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

No at all. I started 2019 with the news that AstraZeneca was to be fundamentally re-organised – from a functional model to a disease-area aligned one. Accompanying this were new strategic directions, including a clear future for the company driven by digital, data and AI.

 

I had started out the year thinking I would be reinforcing my previous role as VP of advanced analytics, focusing on clinical data and improving the way we run clinical trials. By the end, I had built an entirely new function of 130 data professionals to provide data science and AI capabilities right across our R&D organisation.

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

I expect 2020 to be a year where reality begins to hit for data and analytics. If you look at where areas such as AI are on the Gartner hype cycle, then we are heading towards the “trough of disillusionment”. This is no bad thing, as it is a natural progression, and, for many working in this area, I sense it will be a relief when the over-hyping of possibilities begins to recede. At the same time, senior business leaders are becoming ever more data-savvy, which will also help data professionals to focus on the right areas.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

For me, the biggest opportunity is freedom from physical constraints. Just think about it. We no longer need to go to a physical bookstore, to interact with our colleagues in person, or travel half-way around the world for a business meeting. We communicate without a thought, with only digital means at our disposal. How often do you now visit a high street bank? This is transforming our world…while at the same time providing a cautionary note that we need to heed. While these capabilities are making us more efficient, we shouldn’t allow them to make us less human.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge you face in ensuring data is at the heart of your digital transformation strategy?

The biggest challenge is around what we call the “control” and “organise” areas of data. These are foundational capabilities – such as standards, governance, policies, ethics, provisioning, curation, formatting, tools and infrastructure. It is challenging and hard work to get data analytics-ready, but it is critical to do so. Without data that is suitably clean, linked, understood and contextualised, it is difficult or impossible to turn that data into information, and the information – in turn – into knowledge. It is enhanced knowledge that we are ultimately after in order to make the decisions that improve lives and businesses.

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