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June 2014

OR: A Catalyst for Engineering Grand Challenges

I finally found the time to read Operations Research: A Catalyst for Engineering Grand Challenges, which has been making the rounds of the OR-related departments in the country. The report's authors advocate using the National Academy of Engineering's Engineering Grand Challenges "as a source of inspiration for the OR community", and in particular they recommend: "(1) an NSF announcement of "Grand Challenge Analytics" as a major EFRI topic, and (2) an NSF sponsored insitute for multidisciplinary OR and engineering." 

The authors make inspiring predictions about the potential OR could have in such fields ("these initiatives are likely to unleash a vast array of methodologies onto the engineering Grand Challenges of today"). This is an important report that makes a strong contribution toward turning OR and analytics into required staples of the engineering arsenal, and it provides important statistics in the introduction drawn from IBM's vision to build a "smarter planet." I do wish that the use of OR to transform (solve?) the engineering grand challenges resulted from a pull from the engineering community rather than a push from the OR folks - in other words, I would have preferred if the report also had made a case from the engineering community that not only do they need the current OR techniques available today but the problems they face, for instance with big data in geosciences, requires the design and analysis of cutting-edge algorithms. What are the collaborations between OR and engineering faculty members happening today (I'm sure there are plenty)? Which OR-trained engineering faculty member can talk about the need to develop new OR techniques because the ones he knows have reached the limits of their usefulness? I'm sure there are plenty too.

The report does make clear that "[its] goal is to view these challenges as an opportunity for the OR community to play the role of a catalyst - utilizing our ideas and tools to address some of the more pressing technological challenges facing humanity today. Because of this emphasis, the report will NOT [emphasis theirs] focus on challenges for OR; instead the focus is on "Catalysis"." It's good to see that the OR community is becoming better at marketing itself and choosing good buzzwords ("catalyst" definitely beats "science of better" - who doesn't want to be a catalyst?), and it's definitely getting as much mileage as it can from the "catalyst" word and its variants.

Now, let me be clear that leveraging the NAE Grand Challenges is a fantastic idea. The report makes valuable suggestions. It is a good read. I also do believe that, while there is a lot of talk about OR serving as a catalyst, OR runs the risk of being seen as a tool rather than an evolving field. You know how when the conversation veers to MOOCs, you'll always find a humanities professor to assert that MOOCs are very good for vocational training (insert sneer/smirk there) but those courses won't teach students the more fundamental skill of how to think? The report, which heavily portrays OR as a needed tool to solve engineering problems, made me think of this dichotomy. I think it cheapens OR to only consider the "tool" angle.

I looked at the section about "OR for Health Care" in most detail given my research in healthcare finance, and while the summary is fair given the space the authors had, I was a bit disappointed by what I read. For instance, the report (quickly) mentions hospital planning/scheduling, operating room scheduling, bed allocation, nurse staffing, but there is no mention whatsoever of the features that make those problems challenging every time so that  they will not fit a cookie-cutter mold. Admittedly, there is also a lot of low-hanging fruit in healthcare resource management and revenue optimization, so that undergraduates in their capstone project can indeed make enormous and quick contributions by applying OR techniques on short-term projects. Fair enough. But it would have been helpful to emphasize the scope of possible improvements OR can make in engineering fields, so that "OR as tool" would be perfect for undergraduate and Master's students doing a semester project or joining companies in entry-level positions, and "OR as way of thinking" (for lack of a better term) would fit the competencies of PhD students and PhD graduates.

Overall, this is an important report that will hopefully stimulate a healthy discussion, not only among OR professionals but also in the broader engineering community.


Picture of the 2013 Lehigh Undergraduate Research Symposium

Aureliethielestudents2My undergraduate researchers Becky Swaszek '14 and Brittany Rasmussen '14 chat with me and Lehigh's Director of Media Relations Jordan Reese at Lehigh's 2013 Undergraduate Research Symposium. Their poster hung in Packard Lab until this year's symposium and is now in my office. Becky is moving to Massachusetts for her PhD studies at Boston University, and if I remember correctly, Brittany will be joining the Philadelphia office of KPMG. I know both of them are bound to do great things in their chosen career paths! I think the whole ISE department office is convinced of that too, because whoever designed the banner now hanging in Mohler's 4th floor lounge picked this picture to be prominently displayed on it, which is how I found out it existed to begin with. (Almost famous.) I'm looking forward to hearing what Becky and Brittany become, but I'm sure I'll hear great news. Happy graduation from Lehigh to them both.