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Tech Talks

The Scientist as Executive

Scientific discoveries are often given a spin in the form of the ‘eureka’ moment. Well, nothing can be farthest from the truth. Not only are scientific advances not made in leaps and bounds, but they come about with a little help from other dramatis personae such as, alas, businessmen and executives.

The groundbreaking work in optical fibres of the late Professor Sir Charles Kao is by now household. But few have paid attention to the three-year period of 1982–1985 when he was appointed Executive Scientist of International Telephone & Telegraph Co. (ITT), a new post specifically created for him by ITT.

In his memoir A Time and A Tide, Professor Kao recalls how he viewed his new task: ‘The major challenge was to paint a rational picture of the future forces that would propel science and technology forward. I had to first understand the obstacles that were deterring the progress of science and technology, and to estimate whether the progressive removal of the limits set by such obstacles could be done.’

A scientist in an executive position should act like a business strategist doing cost-benefit analyses and feasibility estimates. As a prudent manager, personnel matters too should be top of his do-list. One of the first things Professor Kao did as executive scientist at ITT was to recruit two brilliant young men to form a team of three and directed their effort towards answering some fundamental questions. Another was to set up a team of experts from 10 universities and institutes in related areas so as to tap their expertise and leverage on available resources.

From the vantage point of a top executive, Professor Kao was able to see before everyone else the impact of technology on the market and the world. He concludes, at the beginning of his 1991 book A Choice Fulfilled: ‘Perhaps the most significant factor that technology has brought to us is the means for products to be tailored to meet and satisfy individual needs at affordable prices.’


This article was originally published in No. 525, Newsletter in Oct 2018.

Charles Kao scientist