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Celebrating the operations research mindset

At a national society meeting, the president of INFORMS stated:

“We need to develop new methodology and to adapt old; we need to generalize our basic theoretical techniques and to broaden their range of application.”

Who said this and when?

The speaker was Phil Morse, the first president of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), and the occasion was the ORSA Annual Meeting in May 1953. Morse’s basic prescription – keep building up our theory; keep expanding our applications – works just as well today as a guide for the future of operations research.

Others have proffered up their own views of the future of operations research since Morse first looked into the crystal ball. Some of these are devastating in their pessimism. In 1979, Russell Ackoff wrote, “The life of O.R. has been a short one – it was born late in the 1930s – by the mid-1960s most O.R. courses were given by academics who never practiced it, depriving O.R. of its unique incompetence.” Ackoff argued that we “... should want to help create a world in which the capabilities of O.R. are considerably extended but in which the need for O.R. is diminished.” This does not sound like a recipe for growing a discipline. With a healthy 12,000+ membership, INFORMS has happily not followed Ackoff’s advice.

Others have provided more optimistic views. Ten years post‐Ackoff, the irrepressible Alexander Rinnooy Kan wrote that, “The future of O.R. is bright – if there is anything worrying about the state of O.R., it is that our discipline seems to spend such an inordinate amount of time and effort worrying about itself.”

Who can’t relate to that? What should our name be: Operations research? Management science? Decision sciences? Analytics? Calcuholics?

This annoying issue has been around for a long time.

In a 1952 article in the Journal of Applied Physics, Phil Morse wrote: “Personally, I would prefer to forget about definitions and get on with the work. After all, who cares what it’s called, as long as it’s useful and is used?” 1952!!

Our methodological focus might seem odd to outsiders who do not appreciate the history of our field. Why are our main mathematical tools rooted in optimization and stochastic processes? Why not number theory and topology? The answer is that our discipline is rooted in the scientific study of operations, those tasks and processes that represent how organizations “get things done.” Such study is meant to improve decisions, which explains why optimization is so important, while randomness and uncertainty abound in operational processes, making applied probability expertise essential.

Advances in theory have intrinsic value, like art or music, beyond that offered from use in future applications. And while methods and tools evolve over time, our basic approach of using models to better understand systems and improve their performance has stood the test of time. Going back to Morse for a moment, he was really excited about using analogue devices for teaching O.R. One exciting educational application went like this:

“A radioactive source and two Geiger counters provide two purely random sequences of pulses, which may be varied in mean rate merely by changing the distance of the counter from the source. For example, one counter can represent arrivals in a queue, and the other can represent the service operation that removes the individual from the waiting line; an electronic counter can then indicate the instantaneous length of the queue.”

Talk about glowing customers!

Operations research, unlike economics (or physics for that matter), does not possess a “world view” – we have no underlying holistic theory for how the world works. The natural unit of interest in O.R. is “the problem.” It shows in how we label things – the diet problem, traveling salesman problem, stochastic queue median problem, etc. – and it shows in how we decompose more complicated situations into something we can study, model, understand and perhaps improve.

But operations research has a mindset. Operations researchers are the masters of structuring messy situations into problems amenable to analysis. Operational science includes seeing or characterizing phenomena of all sorts as operations. Modeling science (or perhaps modeling art) calls upon our creativity to create new models for such operations. These are key O.R. skills, and they capture what many INFORMS members really do.

Sometimes, immersion in a particular problem domain leads operations researchers to become subject matter experts. Thus, Jon Caulkins has figured out the optimal price for cocaine, Larry Wein and Jerry Brown have secured the homeland, Margaret Brandeau optimally allocates public health resources, Dimitris Bertsimas will ensure that optimization is robust, Arnie Barnett can tell you when your plane will crash, Garrett van Ryzin will get you a seat on that plane at a lower price, Linda Green and Carri Chan will divert an ambulance to get you to the hospital, and Ralph Keeney can explain why it’s all your fault.

O.R. is not an add‐on to such expertise; rather O.R. was crucial in establishing this expertise in the first place.

So, with mindset and domain expertise in place, all of us can rally to our core purpose of advancing our science and practice. All of us can contribute to helping decision‐makers use our technologies, and enable organizations to institutionalize our approaches in their own decision processes. And, all of us can, at least in some small way, use our expertise to help make the world a better place.

Phil Morse had it right 60 years ago. We need to develop new methodology and to adapt old; we need to generalize our basic theoretical techniques and broaden their range of application.

Some final thoughts from your departing member‐in‐chief: We can have a lot of fun doing these things while celebrating how our field has helped us lead more meaningful lives. Operations research is a terrific, wonderful area of endeavor of which you should all be proud.

Keep doing stuff!

No one who met him or listened to him ever forgot him. Robert "Gene" Woolsey of the Colorado School of Mines had a way of picking a fight and becoming your friend at the same time. A past president of ORSA, a regular contributor toInterfaces, and a mentor to students and followers, Gene passed away on March 16 after a valiant battle with Alzheimer's disease. A service will be held in his honor on Sunday, May 24, 2015 at 2pm at Calvary Episcopal Church in Golden, Colorado. A tribute to Gene Woolsey will appear in the next issue of OR/MS Today. How do you remember Gene? Share your thoughts and join the discussion on INFORMS Connect.

As an INFORMS member, you are welcome to share major career news that would interest your fellow INFORMS members. Submit your news here

Congratulations to Arjang Assad, Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management. Dean Assad has just been named Dean of the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh. More news is here.
Congratulations to INFORMS member Chase Rainwater, who was just named the John L. Imhoff Chair in Industrial Engineering at the University of Arkansas. Read more here.

Call for Papers Interfaces Special Issue: Operations Research Applications in the Energy Industry

Submissions are due July 1, 2015   

Operations research can play an important role in the generation, distribution, and consumption of energy. Accordingly, Interfaces is planning a special issue focusing on applications of operations research techniques in the energy industry. Read more here... 

Service Science Special Issue: Co-creating the Customer Service Experience with High Tech and High Touch   

Submissions are due October 15, 2015
In today's highly competitive environment, there is a growing need to provide customers with a truly memorable experience to increase both customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. Submit your paper for this special issue focusing on research that addresses how to enhance the customer service experience. Read more here...  

George B. Dantzig Dissertation Award

The George B. Dantzig Award is given for the best dissertation in any area of operations research and the management sciences that is innovative and relevant to practice. All items should be submitted no later than June 30, 2015.   

For complete eligibility and submission information click here.  

George Nicholson Student Paper Competition

The George Nicholson Committee competition is held each year to identify and honor outstanding papers in the field of operations research and the management sciences written by a student. Prizes will be awarded and finalists will be invited to present their papers at the 2015 INFORMS Annual Meeting. All entries must be submitted no later than June 5, 2015.   

For complete eligibility and submission information click here

Doing Good with Good OR - Student Paper Competition

This competition will feature the most exciting OR/MS work performed by students in partnership with public and private organizations that yields tangible and beneficial outcomes for individuals, communities, and organizations. Such work will be infused with OR/MS methods and could appeal to multiple disciplinary and application areas. All submissions must be received by May 15, 2015. 

For complete details click here.

Undergraduate Operations Research Prize

The Undergraduate Operations Research Prize Competition honors a student or group of students who conducted a significant applied project in operations research or management science, and/or original and important theoretical or applied research in operations research or management science, while enrolled as an undergraduate student. Entries must be submitted by July 1, 2015.

For complete details click here.

INFORMS Case Competition 

The Sixteenth Annual Peer-Reviewed Case Competition (sponsored by the INFORMS Education Committee and INFORM-ED) is designed to encourage the creation, dissemination, and use of new, unpublished cases in operations research and the management sciences. All submissions are due by August 26, 2015. 
For complete details click here.

Bonder Scholarships 

The Military Applications Society (MAS) of INFORMS is seeking nominations for the 2015 Bonder Scholarship for Applied Operations Research in Military Applications. The scholarship provides funding to support the development of highly qualified individuals and promote the interchange of military O.R. research knowledge with INFORMS. The Scholarship consists of a $4,000 grant, plus award-winner eligibility for up to $1,000 of travel funding. An additional $2,000 grant is provided and funded by the Seth Bonder Foundation. For additional information click here

Applications and letters of support should be submitted as pdfs by June 2, 2015, to William Fox,wpfox@nps.edu.

The Health Applications Society is seeking nominations for the 2015 Bonder Scholarship for Applied Operations Research in Health Services. Like the Bonder Scholarship in military applications, the scholarship is $4,000, with the opportunity to apply for an additional $1,000 travel grant. An additional $2,000 grant is provided and funded by the Seth Bonder Foundation. Additional information is found here

Applications and additional required materials are due by June 1, 2015, to Mark Van Oyen atvanoyen@umich.edu

John von Neumann Theory Prize

This prize is awarded annually to a scholar (or scholars) who has made fundamental, sustained contributions to theory in operations research and the management sciences. Nominations should be submitted to the committee chair (see link) as soon as possible, but no later than June 1, 2015.

For complete eligibility and submission information click here.

Frederick W. Lanchester Prize

This prize is awarded for the best contribution to operations research and the management sciences published in English in the past three years. The prize is $5,000 and a commemorative medallion. Nominations are due no later than June 15, 2015. 

For complete eligibility and submission information click here

Teaching of OR/MS Practice

This award recognizes a university or college teacher for excellence in teaching the practice of OR/MS. Nominations must be submitted by June 30, 2015.

For complete eligibility and submission information click here.

Saul Gass Expository Writing Award

This award honors an operations researcher/management scientist whose publications demonstrate a consistently high standard of expository writing. The winner will receive $2,000 and a framed certificate that includes a brief citation at the 2015 INFORMS Annual Meeting. Nominations must be submitted by July 1, 2015.

For complete eligibility and submission information click here.

INFORMS has a number of continuing education courses scheduled in May and June. Click on the links below for more information on each course, or contact Thedra White at thedra.white@informs.org.

Introduction to Monte Carlo and Discrete-Event Simulation 

May 28-29 - Washington, DC

Data Exploration & Visualization

June 12-13, 2015 - Montreal, Quebec, Canada (prior to International Meeting)

Essential Practice Skills for Analytics Professionals

June 23-24, 2015 - Chicago, IL

Do you want to be in the most competitive position to win an NSF grant in operations research? INFORMS new NSF liaison is Diwakar Gupta, who serves as Program Director, SES & MES programs, CMMI at the National Science Foundation. His charge is to help INFORMS members navigate the challenging rules for submitting an NSF grant application. He makes it all clear: learn how to have the best chance possible of receiving an NSF grant in his INFORMS Connect post.

July 19-23, Singapore

INFORMS is co-sponsoring the Society for Risk Analysis' World Congress on Risk, whose 2015 theme is Risk Analysis for Sustainable Innovation. The conference will address risk management from the global to the community scale. These topics will engage risk analysts in the fields of health, environment, agriculture, engineering, economics, decision making, psychology, social & political sciences, communication, law & policy, and other disciplines. For additional information visit here or contact David A. Drupa at ddrupa@burkinc.com.