President’s Desk: Return on investment from (operations) research

Brian Denton
INFORMS President

Brian Denton

A large portion of our membership is engaged in research at universities, in industry and government labs. As a result, it is no surprise that many of us are deeply concerned about recent proposed changes that threaten progress in research. I believe these concerns stem from a common theme: the difficulty in connecting research to economic and societal impact. In this article, I summarize concerns about recent events, and I give some specific examples of the impact of research. My choice of this topic is based on recent events in the United States, but the central issue of return on investment from research is important to all members who engage in research.

A topic of great discussion over the last couple of months has been the proposed reductions in research funding to U.S. government agencies. Many of our members rely on these agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as a source of faculty salary, funding for graduate student research assistants and postdoctoral fellows. This funding makes it possible to educate and mentor the next generation of professors and industry research staff members. So, it is natural that many people are deeply concerned about what these reductions could mean for progress in our field. (For more on NSF funding opportunities, see Laura Albert’s “Forum” article on page 10).

First, some good news. Last month I had the opportunity to attend a budget briefing on Capitol Hill organized by the American Association of Engineering Societies. The analysis included a review of the proposed “skinny budget” that calls for dramatic cuts to government research funding in the United States. The briefing took an hour, but the final summary was simple. Major cuts in funding to NSF, NIH and the Department of Defense are unlikely (although some sources such as the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are at risk). As of this writing, we have seen approval of a budget through fall 2017 that is flat for NSF (good news, all things considered) and includes a $2 billion increase for NIH.

In spite of the relief over averting major cuts this year, this is an important “wake up” call for our field. There is a longstanding history of challenges in making the connection between basic science and societal impact. The reasons for this include the long lead times for the translation of research to practice and the high risk associated with basic research, particularly theoretical or methodologically focused research. In fact, these challenges are what drive the need for government funding, because high-risk research with long payoff times is often not viable in an industry context where shareholders focus on quarterly returns. Nevertheless, making the case for economic and societal impact from research is necessary to justify public funding.

Research into new methods and theoretical advances in our field (e.g., optimization, stochastic models and simulation) are often the hardest to justify from a societal perspective. However, the collective knowledge derived from these research areas has led to extraordinary advances. For example, without the field of optimization we would not have the commercial packages that enable a robust power grid, operation of global supply chains or the design of radiation treatment plans for cancer patients. Stochastic models and simulation are pervasive in many industries such as healthcare where they are routinely used to analyze medical treatment decisions and climate science where they predict and plan for natural disasters. Industry-leading organizations such as Amazon, General Motors, Google, IBM, Mayo Clinic and SAS, to name a few, leverage these advances to drive innovation and competitive advantage. The INFORMS journal Interfaces is a great resource for success stories, but it communicates to our members and not to the broader public.

One of the most important outcomes from research is the professional development of the team members who conduct it. In our field, the majority of government research dollars go to students and postdoctoral fellows. This is part of our culture – education through research – and its importance should not be underestimated. Dramatic cuts in government research funding would cause an immediate reduction in opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. This comes while we are experiencing high demand from industry and academic institutions for people with advanced degrees in our field.

Basic research in our field has improved the world with managerial insights and advanced methods that are available in software packages that are routinely used to achieve economic gains, improve human health, and increase safety and national security. Cuts to research would jeopardize our field’s ability to respond to the next generation of societal problems, but without making the case to the public, this may be inevitable. Therefore, I encourage you to engage in public dialogue with people outside our field. Write a press release, contact your congressman, create a YouTube video, write an article aimed at the general public or visit a local high school to talk to students about our field. Better yet, come up with new innovative ideas to get the word out about the impact of what we do.