Leader: Reflecting on the Last Nine Years


I first joined The OR Society General Council in January 2009, and the board a couple of years later. On 31 December 2018, after four years in the President-Elect/President/Immediate Past President cycle, I finally step down. In that time I have met a huge number of operational research (OR) and OR-related people, seen a huge amount of OR and OR-related work, and noted both change and continuity. What a fantastic excuse for a long and subjective leader article.

Ascending and Descending

Back in 2009, the society was active and vibrant, with thriving publications, regular conferences and events, an important training offering and supportive members. Since then, we seem to have been caught in a version of the Penrose staircase immortalised in Escher’s Ascending and Descending: there is anxiety about things going downhill, whilst the numbers show that every one of these activities has grown. We published four peer-reviewed journals in 2009, but six in 2018 (having added the Journal of Health Systems and Journal of Business Analytics), thus reinforcing our global standing and relevance (as well as our finances). By 2018, we had added the annual Beale Lecture and Analytics Summit to the regular programme of conferences; and though attendance has fluctuated over the years, OR60 attracted 487 delegates compared with OR50’s 412. In 2018, we trained more than twice as many people as in 2009. Attendance at our flagship public lecture, the Blackett, has similarly more than doubled. And even member numbers have increased (thanks partly to free student membership and the introduction of corporate partnership) leading to over 3,000 members and affiliates, compared with fewer than 2,500 at the start of 2009.

I could list a host of other changes but will limit myself to a handful. We have introduced a (non-binding) statement of ethical principles (one of the first OR societies to do so); and an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy which is more important than ever in the current political climate. We offer MSc student scholarships and are working on a level 7 apprenticeship as an alternative path. Members can now qualify as Chartered Scientists, Registered Scientists or Certified Analytics Professionals. Pro Bono OR has helped scores of charities and helped show the way to the US, Portugal and the Royal Statistical Society. We have established a research panel to nurture the UK’s OR research and making an impact to reverse the slide towards practitioner disengagement from conferences. New networks for early career professionals and for women in OR are also being developed.

Ambitious goals in the face of risk and uncertainty

Behind the scenes, too, the society has changed as it has grown. More activities than ever are undertaken by paid staff. Governance has been strengthened as befits a charity with a turnover of more than £1million. Strategy is better articulated to help meet ambitious goals in the face of risk and uncertainty. All of this is only possible, and only necessary, because of the energy and commitment of ‘OR people’ (the society’s last annual report showed it received an estimated 5,000 volunteer days) and more importantly, because OR itself is thriving. In the last few years, I have visited every active regional society, and a dozen of the 90+ universities where we have members, and have been inspired by the impact, variety and reach of the work being carried out. 

Something that hasn’t changed, and is a key theme of my visits, is the diversity of OR, and also the porous boundaries between OR and neighbouring activities. These characteristics open up opportunities for OR across a huge range of issues, methods, and collaborators, as evidenced during those visits or in the literature, conferences or casual conversation. Not all the specialties talk to each other or are even aware of each other’s membership of the OR canon.  When they do, they expose even more opportunities at the interface (for example, of machine learning and soft OR) re-emphasising just how powerful OR can be.

Perpetual Identity Crisis

But diversity and porous boundaries also bring a massive and perpetual identity crisis. I feel particularly well-qualified to bemoan this, as somebody who fell into the profession accidentally and who didn’t dare describe herself as an operational researcher for more than 30 years. My answer to identity anxiety now is simple: if you’re not sure if you’re an operational researcher but you’re a rigorous, honest and numerate thinker who is not frightened to take on a real-world challenge and find helpful ways that the problem-owner can improve the situation, then call yourself what you like, but get involved with the OR community and you’ll find a home. 

Many of our changes are responses to the changing world, which has affected our capability and capacity and the need and demand for our skills in all sorts of ways. One unwelcome change has been the resurgence of disregard for thoughtful, rational argument and of carelessness about fact. The OR community is not immune to this but, for most of us, this kind of approach should be and is anathema. Our defences against it are weak, partly because such behaviour is inherently hard to fight, and partly because, in our rational and fact-based world, it repeatedly comes as a surprise that others disrespect this. But it is vital to call it out where we can and to reflect on our own values, behaviours and analyses to maintain our own integrity.

This is the last Inside OR leader article I will write after my long stint on the board. I will sign off by saying how much I have enjoyed being part of the society’s collective leadership and by thanking all the staff, volunteers, members and other colleagues who have been part of the same journey. I won’t be disappearing – you can take the person out of OR, but you can’t take OR out of the person. I look forward to continuing change and growth as OR and the society continue to thrive over the next ten years and more.

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