Forum: Opportunities for O.R. at the National Science Foundation

By Laura Albert

The mission of the National Science Foundation (NSF) is to “promote the progress of science, to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense.” To support this mission, NSF supports fundamental research and education.

Georgia-Ann Klutke and Irina Dolinskaya are the program directors for the new Operations Engineering (OE) program, the main program at NSF that supports research in operations research. I recently attended one of Georgia-Ann Klutke’s presentations about the OE program and talked with her about opportunities for O.R. at NSF.

National Science Foundation

The OE program replaced the Service, Manufacturing and Operation Research (SMOR) program in February 2017, as announced in a “Dear Colleague Letter.” According to Klutke, the goal of the OE program is to improve operations decisions to support real systems. The OE program focuses on research proposals that have huge potential impact on the operational aspects of important engineering applications and should enable improved decision-making capabilities. Collaborative research is valued in proposals to the new OE program, and Klutke recommended collaborations with those who have different, non-overlapping skill sets.

The long-term strategy for the OE program is to broaden participation and enhance diversity in the OE portfolio. Klutke mentioned a few emerging application areas in data-driven environments that could benefit from operations research, including healthcare delivery that occurs outside the walls of a hospital, manufacturing operations, supply chains in human trafficking and adversarial networks, and public safety. She is supportive of funding workshops in emerging application areas that would be attended by domain experts as well as researchers. The funding windows for unsolicited proposals have changed to Sept. 1-15 and Jan. 10-24 each year. The SMOR program offered a common level of support for each proposal, and the OE program plans to fund small, exploratory awards as well as medium and large awards to give investigators what they need to do the research.

Opportunities for operations research outside of the OE program in cross-cutting programs and special solicitations include:

  • Smart and connected health,
  • computational and data-enabled science and engineering,
  • cyber-physical systems, and
  • critical resilient interdependent infrastructure systems and processes.

The dear colleague letter announced a controversial change to what the program will not fund: “The OE program is highly supportive of leveraging funds across NSF programs but is not the primary source of funding for purely methodological or algorithmic research.”

Klutke confirmed that purely methodological research will not be funded by the new OE program. She explained that the OE program is clearly carving out its niche, and other programs will fund the methodological or algorithmic research niche. For methodology, she recommended programs in algorithmic foundations (in Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE)) and applied mathematics (in Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS)), computational mathematics (in DMS), probability (in DMS) and statistics (in DMS). She recommended that researchers in these areas volunteer to serve on review panels so that operations research becomes valued in these programs.

Klutke and Dolinskaya are working to co-fund O.R. proposals in different programs. Some of these programs include Civil Infrastructure Systems; Manufacturing Machines and Equipment; Energy, Power, Control and Networks; Infrastructure Management and Extreme Events; and Decision, Risk and Management Science.

Laura Albert is the assistant dean for Graduate Studies in the College of Engineering and an associate professor in Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also the INFORMS vice president of Marketing, Communication and Outreach.
Editor’s note:
For more on federal funding of O.R.-related research, see INFORMS President Brian Denton’s “President’s Desk” column.