Past and current presidents of the Institute For Operations Research and the Management Sciences have authored a white paper on how operations research can help make things better. The INFORMS website gives a great introduction of the paper: "Operations research can contribute significantly to the resolution of many of the grand challenges in engineering that the US and the world will face in the coming century. Most, if not all, of the challenges will require inter-disciplinary teams with experts from a variety of backgrounds each addressing different aspects of the issues. OR-trained experts are particularly adept at merging different perspectives and viewpoints and will therefore play a crucial role in the development of solutions to such challenges."
Unfortunately, many issues plague "OR" (pronounced O-R and a nightmare to include in a search on Google, which treats it as a Boolean operator), not the least of which being the difficulty to define it. And for those of you who wonder what operations research is (many do), the first sentence of the paper clarifies it nicely: "Operations researchers are trained in a range of quantitative methodologies that support the transformation of data into information for improved decision-making." My former PhD advisor, Prof. Dimitris Bertsimas, was right on target when he titled his book on quantitative decision models for business students "Data, Models and Decisions"; that defines operations research quite well (the transformation of data into decisions through mathematical models). The National Science Foundation has also identified the transformation of data into decisions as a key area for operations research through its cyberinfrastructure initiative; I wrote a post a while back on the increasing importance of information in operations research-oriented departments in engineering and business schools.
The paper falters quickly after such a promising beginning, and goes on to enumerate fields where OR can help engineers and managers make better decisions (starting with the unpopular application of yield revenue management and continuing with eye-catching, public-service areas such as health care in developing countries and in the U.S.) The applications-driven paper lacks the unifying theme that a focus on information management would have provided, and instead OR comes across as an add-on to other people's expertise - certainly valuable, but not critical. I'm not sure why anyone would want to be portrayed as jack of all trades but master of none... The authors also miss the opportunity to portray operations researchers as the center of inter-disciplinary teams bringing scientists from various disciplines together, drawing from their experience in one area to help researchers in another. When I finished reading the paper I wasn't particularly excited to be working in the field, but I give the authors credit for trying - marketing OR is an uphill battle, given the aversion to math of most regular folks, and every little thing helps. (This article in the Economist did a much better job of explaining how mathematical models appear in everyday transactions and help companies, but it didn't include the save-the-world examples that supposedly help get grant money and had a decidedly business rather than engineering flavor, but we'll keep the question of whether operations research is a business instead of engineering field for another time.)
Then I returned to my research, which is on making models well-suited to the amount of information the decision-maker has rather than forcing him to make tons of unverifiable assumptions, and to the thick volume my department has prepared for ABET's visit tomorrow to get our Bachelor's degree in Information and Systems Engineering accredited. Information-driven management isn't on the radar screen of the INFORMS leadership yet, but it's definitely gaining ground in universities and in the firms that snap our graduates. Maybe in a few years we can start discussing a new name for the profession, because "operations research" really isn't catching on.