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May 28, 2008 / or4green

Interdisciplinary OR/MS

According to a nice, brief piece by Heiner Müller-Merbach in Omega (Vol. 37, #3, June ’09) entitled “The Interdisciplinary Generalist”, being interdisciplinary is an “old” but “often forgotten” virtue of OR/MS. He writes:

The rationality behind the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to problems is simply that problems in general are not ordered according to the scientific disciplines; instead, most real problems (at least the major and more complex ones) have at the same time physical, chemical, technical, economic, legal, social, ethical aspects etc.

Somewhat obvious, and somewhat generalizable beyond OR/MS, but at the same time, it seems, somewhat understated within the field, especially at a time when interdisciplinary institutes are continually forming. (Google “interdisciplinary institute” to get a sense. In the sustainability realm, see the article “A Threat So Big, Academics Try Collaboration,” NY Times, 12/25/07, probably worth a post of its own.)

Müller-Merbach goes on to describe the content, abilities, and feel, from various disciplines, such as mathematics, science, engineering, fine art, social science, etc., that an interdisciplinary generalist should aspire to obtain.

This factored into an undergraduate project I advised this past semester on analyzing waste flow at the US Coast Guard Academy. Some disciplines, and the content within, that were important for the project group members to handle included:

  • policy – government programs and regulations regarding the disposal of waste
  • business – contracts, organizational structure (of offices responsible for waste), labor
  • math – model formulation, multi-objective linear optimization, multi-criteria decision analysis
  • science/engineering – workings of waste flow alternatives such as a trash compactor, organic waste composting
  • ethics – environmental objectives and constraints, hazardous waste
  • economic – purchasing, contracts (again), cost minimization
  • sociological/psychological – changing attitudes/behaviors surrounding waste and purchasing, implementing new responsibilities among groups and individuals, education about waste flow alternatives
  • technical/computer – spreadsheet optimization, database programming

It was a nice reminder for all involved, that it is not just about the math. (More on this project later…)

Corn-ethanol bio-fuel is another example calling for an interdisciplinary approach. There is debate about whether it makes sense to pursue it. Here are some questions surrounding the issue, followed by the disciplines one would need to help answer them:

  1. What is the impact on food supplies, prices and beyond, of switching corn production from food to ethanol?
    Economics, Agriculture
  2. Is the energy balance favorable for ethanol, i.e. does corn ethanol contain more energy than it takes to produce it?
    Thermodynamics, Agriculture
  3. Are government incentives working properly?
    Policy/Regulation, Economics, Marketing

Granted, some of these can go beyond the purview of OR/MS, but the majority lie within.

[For one take on #2, see Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle (pdf) by T. W. Patzek.

“The Ethanol Myth” in the October 2006 issue of Consumer Reports also mentions #2. In addition, it hits on #3 with a good discussion about the impact of flexible-fuel vehicle (FFV) credits.]



  1. Daniel / Jun 9 2008 3:20 am

    The need to revisit OR’s interdisciplinary roots also emerged in a recent opinion piece I wrote for the Journal of the Operational Reserach Society (In press) on the future of OR in the biotic natural resource industries.

  2. or4green / Jun 11 2008 9:25 am

    Excellent – please pass along the reference as it becomes available.

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