engineering grand challenges that operations research can help solve

In May, the report Operations Research – A Catalyst for Engineering Grand Challenges was released to the National Science Foundation [grant info here]. The report outlines operations research grand challenges for the next century, and they reflect the National Academy of Engineering’s list of grand challenges [Link]. This committee worked on a project funded by the NSF, and it was a great idea for highlighting the importance of operations research in relation to other STEM fields with regard to solving important societal problems as well as for prioritizing directions for our field.  The report was written by a committee composed by:

  • Suvrajeet Sen, Chair, University of Southern California
  • Cynthia Barnhart, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • John R. Birge, University of Chicago
  • E. Andrew Boyd, PROS
  • Michael C. Fu, University of Maryland
  • Dorit S. Hochbaum, University of California -Berkeley
  • David P. Morton, University of Texas-Austin
  • George L. Nemhauser, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Barry L. Nelson, Northwestern University
  • Warren B. Powell, Princeton University
  • Christine A. Shoemaker, Cornell University
  • David D. Yao, Columbia University
  • Stefanos A. Zenios, Stanford University

Executive summary. The growth and success of Operations Research (OR) depends on our ability to transcend disciplinary boundaries and permeate the practices of other disciplines using ideas, tools, and experience of the OR community. This report is intended to continue the tradition of transcending disciplinary boundaries by using the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) Engineering Grand Challenges as a source of inspiration for the OR community. Our goal is to view these challenges as an opportunity for the OR community to play the role of a catalyst – utilizing OR to facilitate some pressing technological challenges facing humanity today.

A panel of thought-leaders convened by the NAE (and facilitated by NSF) unveiled its vision of the Engineering Grand Challenges in 2008. Over the past several years, this report has invited (and received) feedback from international leaders and professional organizations, including the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). As input from the OR community, several past Presidents of INFORMS prepared a white paper, an abbreviated version of which appeared as the President’s Column in OR/MS Today (April 2008). As predicted, the OR community has been active in many of the thematic areas of the NAE Grand Challenges via publications in topical research areas of our flagship journals, joint major conferences, and other collaborative efforts. The question of whether there are ways to dovetail OR with these challenges is not the issue. Of importance is whether there is a need to introduce greater structure for research and exchange between domain experts in core areas of the engineering Grand Challenges and the OR community.

In order to accelerate the growth, this report recommends a two-pronged approach: (1) An NSF announcement of “Grand Challenge Analytics” as a major EFRI topic, and (2) an NSF sponsored institute for “Multidisciplinary OR and Engineering” which will be dedicated to coalescing a general-purpose theory, as well as building a community to support “Grand Challenge Analytics”. Together, these initiatives are likely to unleash a vast array of methodologies onto the engineering Grand Challenges of today. Such an effort could be likened to the manner in which the interface between OR and computer/communications science/engineering has propelled the development of the Internet. Similarly, the long-standing exchanges between the INFORMS and Economics communities has produced deep results, many of which have been honored by the Nobel Prize in Economics. Drawing upon such successes, we propose a new era in which the OR community reaches out to domains that are more directly connected to the NAE Grand Challenges. This more structured approach, driven by NSF sponsorship of research and thematic exchanges (workshops), will result in well-defined outcomes, leading to a strong foundation for the NAE Grand Challenges.

Challenges areas from the report:

  1. OR: A General-Purpose Theory of Analytics
    “The time has come to engage both domain experts as well as OR experts, so that policies/decisions become an integral part of analysis, not an afterthought.”
  2. OR for sustainability
    “The Earth is a planet of finite resources, and its growing population currently consumes them at a rate that cannot be sustained. Utilizing resources (like fusion, wind, and solar power), preserving the integrity of our environment, and providing access to potable water are the first few steps to securing an environmentally sound and energy-efficient future for all of mankind.”
  3. OR for security
    “As our interconnected systems grow in complexity, having a trusted operational model is even more essential for assessing system vulnerabilities and, in turn, addressing the challenge of how to secure that system.”
  4. OR for human health.
    Also see my last blog post on healthcare challenges – I’m glad the White House and the OR community agree with this one!
    “One of the most significant problems facing the health care system is keeping costs under control while providing high levels of service. Doing so requires a careful analysis of costs and benefits, but as Kaplan and Porter (2011) argue, “The biggest problem with health care is that we’re measuring the wrong things the wrong way.” “
  5. OR for Joy of Living
    “For example, reducing traffic congestion in urban areas, improving response times of first-responders, designing smart, energy efficient homes, and others raise many novel OR questions. One such example is an application related to predicting movie recommendations associated with the so-called “Netflix Prize” problem. Other “joys of life,” such as sports, have also seen many applications of analytics; in addition to the well publicized baseball movie “Moneyball,” there is Major League Baseball scheduling which is done routinely using OR models. In this sense, OR casts such a wide net in the “Joy of Living” area, that the following subsections (pertaining only to the NAE Grand Challenges) explicitly discuss only a small subset of applications for “Joy of Living.” “

Report Recommended Actions

Action 1. NSF should announce an EFRI (Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation) topic for “Grand Challenge Analytics”. These proposals should not only be judged according to the impact on a Grand Challenge problem, but also on the novel methodology that will be developed as a result of the research. EFRI is a well-established program within NSF, and given the ground work of this report, we believe that NSF program officers will find it relatively straightforward to craft a RFP on this topic.

Action 2. Concurrently with Action 1, we recommend the formation of an Institute which will invite both EFRI-funded researchers as well as others from the field to participate in workshops which will explore common themes resulting from “Grand Challenge Analytics” projects. These workshops will not only help cross-fertilization between projects, but also help develop a general-purpose theory of analytics.

My Recommend Actions

Submit your student paper to the INFORMS Doing Good with Good OR student paper competition next year

Submit your paper to the INFORMS Section of Public Programs, Services, and Needs Best Paper Competition (due on June 15!)


What do you think of the OR grand challenges?

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