Leader: Powered by OR, getting ready for The OR Society’s Jubilee


Without checking the internet or your diary, when would you say that Britain experienced the loss of its longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth the Second? Does it feel a long time ago? Perhaps half a year? Or longer?

At the time of writing, the Queen passed away less than 11 weeks ago. Much has happened since then: we are already on our second prime minister, we have a new king, the Ukrainian counter-offensive has seen some remarkable successes, and much has been said in the media about the World Cup in Qatar.

Life moves on apace, and constant change demands innovation Despite all this activity, it would be wrong to forget Queen Elizabeth’s life of service too quickly. It was, and is, appropriate to commemorate Her Majesty’s reign, not only because of her death later in the year but because 2022 was also her Platinum Jubilee.

We should celebrate our achievements and retell our collective stories – as a nation under a monarch, and also as a learned society. Yes, that’s right – The OR Society is coming into its own jubilee in 2023.

After the Second World War, the officers and scientists who formed the first OR teams dispersed into public life, government and industry but stayed in close association, forming the ‘OR Club’ in 1948. The club was formalised into The OR Society in 1953, making next year (2023) either our 75th Jubilee or our 70th Jubilee, depending upon when you choose to recognise our beginning as a learned society.

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Gilbert Owusu,
The OR Society President from January 2023

As with the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, we should consider commemorating our origins as a community of experts and also the many, various and invaluable contributions operational researchers have made to society and business alike. We should spend the year raising the profile on the discipline’s impact on business and the applications enabled thanks to developments originating in academia.

Great Britain, with all its institutions, corporations and communities, would be a poorer place without the problem- structuring, decision-supporting and improvement-enabling work of the OR community.

It is also no exaggeration to say that many lives would have been lost or foreshortened without OR. I write this ahead of the Blackett Lecture, given this year by Prof Christina Pagel, and no-doubt attendees will learn about where OR fitted into the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Christina’s talk title refers to “the brilliant science”, and I am sure the influence of OR will be found there. The work of Independent Sage is just one example of where OR has made substantial impacts upon people’s lives.

Operational research as a distinct discipline has endured the frequent conversations about renaming or rebranding itself after the ‘current thing’, be it business intelligence, data science or analytics with its hundreds of prefixes (cognitive, descriptive, diagnostic, predictive and prescriptive, to name but five).

It seems to me that at some point ‘operational research’ must inevitably transition from a term in constant danger of being considered obsolete into a term that is timeless. My strong preference is to champion this and to help cement OR into the lexicon of every business and institution.

Some years ago, The OR Society ran a marketing campaign with the core message of “OR inside”. It was, of course, a play on the famous marketing tag line “Intel inside” which itself communicated the idea that everything computer-related was made not only possible but also made to be the best by Intel. Communicating the message that key functions of the UK are ‘powered by OR’ is a worthy one, and potentially widely applicable, simply because it’s true!

Innovations in artificial intelligence are not necessarily threats to this, if they are considered as extra tools in the OR toolkit. However, ensuring operational researchers are trained to the current standard in AI and machine learning may become more of a priority. The other, concurrent approach would be to educate people working in AI that they are part of the OR community and will benefit from interacting with us, through training, accreditation or other activities. We should therefore constantly consider our offering to members so that the society provides a truly relevant and valuable service.

At the same time, we should not focus so much on one area that others are neglected. Soft OR has transformational power to improve processes and structures that involve people, making it a powerful opportunity that is almost universally relevant.

The Society’s Board and General Council have everything in place to position the Society for its future development. Many of the points raised above can fit into the next revision of its strategic plan (which is due for development). It can build on the brilliant technical foundations and links we have, and place the membership at the heart of its work.

One of the key links for the coming years will be with the prototype National Academy of Mathematical Sciences. This magazine has reported on the various stages of its proposal, and we’re now well placed to help it to succeed and make the most of the advantages it can bring for our community.

We, as a society Board and Staff team, have the opportunity to learn from ourselves, from our own expertise. We should continue to improve the user experience for our members and event attendees and show that we practise what we preach.

As I take over the role of OR Society President from Professor Edmund Burke, I wish to pay tribute to the strategic vision and operational effectiveness that he brought to the society during a tenure that bridged the COVID-19 era. While I will no-doubt face novel challenges in the role of president, Edmund truly did face unprecedented challenges which he rose to with vigour and vision.

Similarly, I wish to pay tribute to the staff team’s outgoing Executive Director, Gavin Blackett, who served the society with distinction for 16 years; and to welcome the incoming Executive Director, Seb Hargreaves, who brings insights from a career spanning the RAF and the third sector.

Showing that OR is still alive and well at The OR Society is surely an important part of celebrating our jubilee year, whether or not it is for the 70th or 75th year. The Society Board will appoint a working group to consider how best to mark this special year.

If you have ideas or a vision for how we can best do this, please get in touch at [email protected]

Let’s show how much of society and business really is ‘powered by OR’.