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Operations research, unlike economics, does not possess a “world view”

Tuesday, 6 Dec 2016
Jeffrey Jones

Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), Annual Meeting in May 1953

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?
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!!
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.
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!

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