INFORMS: 30,000 members or 5,000?

When I was elected President of INFORMS in 2000 (my Presidential Year was 2002:  they ease you into the job!), I was very proud to become President of a 14,000 member society (at the age of 42:  don’t let the grey hair fool you).  14,000?  Actually probably 12,000.  Maybe 11,500.  Where did all the members go?  As I looked into things, I was pointed to (thanks Les Servi!) Bowling Alone, which gave exhausting statistical evidence that social capital activities of all types (including professional society membership) were decreasing.   The importance of social capital and the need for societies to increase social capital opportunities became the theme of my presidency.  We did some good things during my year, and many of those have continued.

But INFORMS remains a 10,000-12,000 member society.  Financially, this is currently not much of an issue:  “membership” on the INFORMS books loses money. But the times, they are a’changing.  The main moneymaker for INFORMS is publications, with a very strong emphasis on academic library subscriptions.   INFORMS would be a financially healthy organization if all it did was publish Management Science.  But you don’t need to be a diviner to see that this is not a stable base.  Academic libaries are cutting budgets and alternative publication outlets are increasing in importance.  Even now, I need to stress to my colleagues from a computer science background that they (currently) need to publish in journals:  for them, conferences provide the primary outlet.

Even beyond the financials, having a strong membership is a good thing for our field.  While I was convinced by Bowling Alone that a decreasing membership is not the sign of the death of a field, not everyone buys that argument.  If operations research is as important as, say, economics, why are there 20,000 members of the American Economic Association but only 10,000 members of INFORMS?  (By the way, the AEA table gives a good picture of the issues every society is facing:  is economics really 20% less relevant now than it was in 2001, as given by the AEA membership numbers?).

So, to get to the crux, can INFORMS be a 20,000 (or 30,000 or 50,000) member society?  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics believes there are 58,000 OR analysts, and predicts this to increase to 65,000 in 2016.  I would guess that no more than 1,000 of these are members of INFORMS (I would not fall in this category, and I am pretty typical of INFORMS members).  Is this our market?  How would we get them?  Or are there people in our traditional group (Ph.D.s or students towards that degree, primarily in academia but many in practice or academics with a practice bent) that we should be aiming for?  Or perhaps retention is the issue:  we lose 20-30% per year (I believe), meaning we have to attract 2,000-3,000 new members per year just to stay even.

Or should INFORMS be happy decreasing to to 5,000 members, perhaps while still providing services to a larger group?  Would this be a bad outcome?

I’m on a few committees for INFORMS that look at these issues, but, now that my Board time is done, I don’t speak for INFORMS.  So I am interested in your views, loyal reader of MTORP:  What should INFORMS do?  The easy answer is to provide more at a lower cost.  That is going to be hard to do.

We can provide less at a lower cost: imagine a $30 membership where you get nothing more than a subscription to OR/MS Today (a fantastic magazine).  Everything else is a la carte.  You want to go to a conference:  no member discount (or perhaps you have to be a member, so you have saved $30);  you want a journal:  here’s the cost;  want a subdivision:  they all now charge real dues.  $30 gets you in the door:  everything else has a price tag.  Jim Orlin provided one vision of a lower cost membership.

Or perhaps we increase membership to $250 (it is currently $144).  We upgrade the website to create a true social network.  Everything becomes cheaper (for members!).  But we lose lots of members who don’t want to pay $250.

But I don’t want to provide too many possibilities:  I’d like your views.  What would you like INFORMS to do, and why?

Are USENET groups irrelevant?

Long before the web, there was Usenet, an internationally distributed discussion system.  Through Usenet, people could discuss topics of interest, with topics  organized in a shallow tree structure.  In the pre-web days, it was exciting to talk to people around the world, back at a time where even having an email address was not to be assumed.  In a world where technical reports were distributed by mail (I remember the excitement when the batch of orange covered reports from the researchers from the University of Maryland arrived, since they sent out their work en masse), the immediacy of Usenet was startling.

Usenet, at the time, had strong self-enforced rules (Usenet has no central server, and no owner):  no commercial postings, no binaries in non-binaries groups (without the web, distributing software was more difficult, though ftp existed for that), no off-topic messages.

In 1993, Mohan Sodhi (then a doctoral student at UCLA) went through the arduous process of creating the newsgroup sci.op-research (see the google archive), which began with the charter:

The Charter:

The main purpose of this group is to act as the umbrella group from which different O.R. interest groups will branch off in the future, as envisioned by the Technology Committee of the ORMS Board.

In the interim, the newsgroup will support the RESEARCH, APPLICATION and TEACHING of operations research through the unmoderated exchange of information through various activities including:

— Posting information about accepted papers
— Asking questions and posting summaries of replies
— Posting Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and other lists such as
-Ajay Shah’s list of Free C/C++ programs for numerical methods
-Arthur Geoffrion’s list of mail reflectors relevant to O.R.
-John Gregory’s FAQ on LP
Those interested in a particular area could bring out regular FAQs answering questions or likely questions from those new to their area.
— Posting information about ARCHIVES (e.g. those at Rutgers, Bilkent)
— Sharing teaching approaches
— Announcement of new textbooks; Discussion on existing textbooks
— New product announcements
— Users’ impressions of commercial software (No advertisements.)
— JOB announcements in universities and industry

The newsgroup became reasonably popular, generating 100-200 messages per month, almost all on topic.  I have read the newsgroup since its beginnings, and posted perhaps 10 times per year on average.

Over time, the strength of the unmoderated, free flowing discussion in newsgroups such as sci.op-research became a drawback.  Popular newsgroups attracted spam and cranks.  “Trolls” came, whose sole goal was to start a flame war with outrageous posts.  Usenet, in short, became a seedy backwater of the internet, with its role taken over by blogs, discussion forums, and other more organized structures on the web.

sci.op-research avoided the worst of this, since we were not big enough to attract much attention.  I had my problems with some of the discussion.  Some was uncivil in my view (“How can you possibly be teaching this if you know so little!”) and some was just annoying (“Can you answer this homework question please” or, worse, “The answer to that obvious homework problem is 6”).  But there was enough information there to make it worthwhile both to read and to post the occasional question, answer, or announcement.

When I redesigned this blog, I included a feed for the sci.op-research (and comp.constraints) newsgroups in the right column, doing my little bit to point people to the discussion (it is a sign of my age that I even know what Usenet is:  I think the under 30 crowd has no idea about it).  But I had to take it down:  the newsgroup is currently getting porn ads, two or three per day, which I would prefer not to be posting (my Dad reads this blog!), along with an incessant set of ads for “instructor’s manuals” for courses.

I think sci.op-research still could play a role:  where else do you go to ask a question of a large groups of people (google suggests a readership of 1123)?  But, outside of a few diehards, it doesn’t seem like much of a community, a feel it very much had in the mid-1990s.  With no central structure to do things like get rid of spam, it seems hard to envision a future for it.  Can it survive, or are we looking at the end of one form of interaction?

Bernie Madoff and Data Visualization

If you are like most people, when you hear of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme ripping off investors to the tune of $50 billion, you might think “Oh those poor investors”, or perhaps “Just the rich ripping off the other rich”.  If you do research in a business school, you might wonder about the institutional controls that allowed for such a long-term scam.  But if you are in operations research, you probably think:  what a great source of data!  I wonder what I can do with that?

A couple of the results of the last question (thanks Bryan!):  GeoCommons (“Visual Analytics through Maps”) have a very cool map of Madoff’s investors.  While the map doesn’t contain any information that is not part of the 162 page listing of investors, the visualization leads to lots of interesting questions:  why so much around Denver?  Why so little in Asia?  If there was one person in Auckland, New Zealand involved, is it surprising it was in Parnell?  And who was that guy in Northern Canada who got ripped off, eh?  (The latter appears to be a misplacement:  there is a Lac Carre outside of Montreal).  Other maps are here and here.

Network from The Network Thinker
Network from The Network Thinker

Even better is the growing analysis of the social network involved in the Madoff scam.  The Network Thinker has a great graph pointing out who invested with whom (there is also an interactive map).  This leads to all sorts of graph theoretic questions:  what is the longest path in the graph?  What do components of the graph (minus Madoff) correspond to?  Are there cliques or near-cliques in the graph?

This is great data that I am sure will be used in countless dissertations over the next years.  It probably wasn’t worth $50 billion to get that data, but we might as well use it now that we have it.

Giving Talks

I am in Auburn Alabama where I just gave a talk to the industrial and systems engineering department on sports scheduling.  I must say that when I left Pittsburgh this morning, I had somewhat mixed feelings.  Of course, I love giving talks, and it is great to go out and see a university I have not seen before.   And I know some people at Auburn and I like them and the research they do (check out Kevin Gue‘s animations of order picking in warehouses:  who knew order picking was so captivating!).  Further, the meetings with people I don’t know offer great opportunities for social capital (I ended up enjoying all of my meetings, particularly the one with Emmett Lodree who is doing really neat work on disaster response and inventory).

But as the alarm went off at 4:30AM so I could make a 7AM flight to Atlanta and then drive an hour and half from Atlanta to Auburn, I was wondering of the value of giving another talk.   I have given versions of my sports scheduling talk a few dozen times (though it is vastly different than what it was even one year ago) and, while it is a fun talk, some of the thrill is gone.

But recently I read a blog entry by Sze San Nah, a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, on her giving her first talk (at the IFORS conference in South Africa).  In her blog entry, she goes through the excitement and terror of giving a talk at a professional conference.   And I thought back on my first talk.  It was at an ORSA/TIMS (or TIMS/ORSA) conference in the mid-1980s.  I was to give a talk on an improved algorithm for polymatroidal flow (a paper I am still extremely proud of:  it was published in Math of OR).  The paper was stuck in a session on manufacturing networks, and the chair of the session introduced it as “Here’s a paper that I can’t even understand the abstract.  I don’t know what it is doing here”.  He proceeded to spend the rest of the session looking out the window.  After that introduction, practically everyone in the room stood up and left, seeing that there was going to be very little manufacturing in my talk.  Fortunately, I think my co-author Craig Tovey had rounded up some people, because about 10 people came into the room, just to hear me talk.  So I stumbled through my talk, and it ended up going reasonably well.  But I was very nervous.

Since then, I have given perhaps one hundred talks at professional meetings and another fifty talks at various universities and research institutions.  And I think the key to giving a good talk is to keep some of the nervousness that Sze San Nah talks about, without letting that nervousness take over.

To come back to Auburn, I had a great day here.  Nervousness was easy, since there were sixty or more people in the room.  But the talk went well, if a little rushed. I am glad I decided not to ignore the alarm clock this morning!

Disaster in the making, and averted

According to the New York Times, I am unlikely to be a successful researcher in my chosen field of operations research. The reason? No, not due to an insufficient mathematical grounding, or a fuzzy understanding of methods of symmetry breaking for integer programs, but rather due to a social effect: I like to drink beer. I particularly like to drink beer with other academics. Here at the Tepper School, there is a Friday Beer group that goes out at the end of every week, and drinks.. yes.. beer. At OR conferences, I am likely to be found in the bar talking with friends (and adversaries!), and have often evaluated a conference on the quality of that bar and those conversations. In fact, as President of INFORMS, I took it as a platform that people should drink more beer together (actually, I advocated a stronger understanding of social capital, but it is a rather thin line). But the New York Times, via a Czech ornithologist, says that is a problem:

What is it that turns one scientist into more of a Darwin and another into more of a dud?

After years of argument over the roles of factors like genius, sex and dumb luck, a new study shows that something entirely unexpected and considerably sudsier may be at play in determining the success or failure of scientists — beer.

According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

Oh no! I still have aspirations to be OR’s answer to Darwin and Einstein. Am I ruining my chances by partaking in the golden nectar? Is having my “conference preparation” be limited to checking out the brewpubs in the area fundamentally flawed?

Fortunately, there are people out there who spend time debunking such myths, and lithographer Chris Mack was on the job. In a brilliant piece of work, Chris provides an excellent summary of what can go wrong in statistical analysis. He sees a number of problems with the analysis:

  1. Correlation is not causation. Perhaps it is poor research that drives one to drink (as alluded to in the Time article), or there is a common factor that drives both (a nagging spouse or an annoying dean, perhaps).
  2. There aren’t many data points: just 34, and the r-squared value is just .5
  3. The entire correlation is driven by the five worst-performing, and heaviest drinking, researchers.
  4. It is likely those five are drinking with each other, messing up the independence assumption of linear regression.

So, as Chris says:

Thus, the entire study came down to only one conclusion: the five worst ornithologists in the Czech Republic drank a lot of beer.

Whew! That’s a relief. The next time operations research gets together with lithography, I owe Chris a beer.

Thanks to, ironically, my drinking buddy Stan for the pointers.

Navigating an INFORMS Meeting

Well, the INFORMS Pittsburgh Meeting is about to begin. The weather looks like it will be fine (no hurricanes like in Miami a few years back!). It is cool tonight (Saturday) but should get a bit warmer for most of the meeting.

At the Doctoral Colloquium tonight, INFORMS President Mark Daskin made some good points about navigating an INFORMS Meeting. One point that may not be obvious to first-time attendees is that you are very welcome to leave a session in between talks (it is a bit ruder to leave in the middle of a talk, but that is certainly not uncommon). So if you like presentation 1 of a session, and presentations 2 and 3 of a session three doors down, feel free to leave after the first presentation (typically as presenter 2 fiddles with the technology) and change rooms. It is something everyone knows after a few conferences, but even first-time attendees should do this. A second point is that many people attend tutorials of areas they specialize in. The best use of tutorials is to learn something of an area that is not known to you. I admit I check out tutorials in my area (to make sure they refer to me in appropriately reverential tones), but I am really wasting my time: I should either be attending something new or partaking in social capital activities (like having a drink at the bar with friends old and new). My own talk at the colloquium was on social capital and OR, similar to my EURO talk.
For those attending, enjoy the conference! For those not attending, shame on you, and plan for Seattle next year!

Update November 5

Mark has kindly provided his full

Mark’s Two-Page Guide to Navigating the


With a focus on first-time attendees

Continue reading “Navigating an INFORMS Meeting”

The Community of Operations Research

For the past three or four years, I have given a talk at the INFORMS Doctoral Colloquium about the importance of social capital in a successful career. This talk is based on the book Bowling Alone by Putnam which argued that society (particularly US society) is becoming more detached, with fewer people engaged in the sort of interactions that lead to social capital. I think this issue is particularly important to OR people, since most of our best work comes by spanning boundaries, working with people in other fields in order to advance the other field while invigorating OR.

Some argue the web creates communities. I don’t think that is really true. The number of true, ongoing communities seems pretty small. One group I know if is a mailing list on an author I adore: Patrick O’Brian (the movie Master and Commander was based on his work). This is an active mailing list that has been around for a decade. Even for this “community”, the number of people who are active for more than a couple of years is astonishingly small, which suggests to me a lack of a true community. So is the technology too limiting or will face-to-face always matter?