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Did scientist-critics invent operational research? April 30, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques, Operations Research.
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Science in War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1940)

In my last post, one of the things I discussed was how mid-20th-century British critics held that a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of science and its relationship with society was a root cause of a national failure to alleviate social and economic ills, and a cause of national decline more generally.  This diagnosis conveniently cast the critic as just the sort of person who could show the way toward a more prosperous and harmonious society.

Such narratives become more credible if a history of prior critical successes can be constructed.  As I argue in my work on the history of operational research (OR) and scientific advice, critics understood the development of OR during World War II to be just such a success, helping to forge newly close and constructive relations between scientific researchers and military officers.  There is no question that key critics of science-society relations—particularly physicist Patrick Blackett—were important figures in OR.  But, the question of the extent to which critics were responsible for OR is actually a challenging interpretive matter with which I have now struggled for a dozen years, since my undergraduate senior thesis.

The urbane zoologist Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993)—who later became the British government’s first chief scientific adviser, from 1964 to 1971—suggested in his 1978 memoir, From Apes to Warlords, that Tots and Quots, the prestigious dining club that he convened, and which counted a number of scientist-critics among its members, was a major force for reforming relations between science, state, and society, including through the development of OR (370-371, my emphasis):

When [Tots and Quots] began we were a group of relatively young, outspoken men, few of whom were known outside our own university departments.  To our elders we no doubt appeared as a pack of ‘Young Turks’.  If anyone has suggested to the original Tots and Quots that among their numbers was a future President of the Royal Society [Blackett], or that a few of us would end up in the House of Lords, it would have been regarded as a silly joke.  But all of us had matured by the time the club died [during the war], and several had had to shoulder major responsibilities.  We had indeed become part of a new Establishment.  Operational research was, to a significant extent, the creation of our members.  We stimulated the appointment of scientific advisers to Government Departments.  And we helped give substance to the concept of social responsibility in the application of science.  We may not have started out to do any of these things, but if we helped to bring them about, then, as a survivor, I am happy to share in the legacy of credit.

Elsewhere in his book, I believe Zuckerman claims to have actually come up with the concept of the humblebrag following a drunken evening spent hanging out with George and Ira Gershwin.

More seriously, the clearest link between Tots and Quots and operational research is the Penguin special Science in War, written anonymously by club members over a two-week period in the summer of 1940, at the behest of Allen Lane (the actual person), following a dinner concentrating on the subject of science and the war.

According to Zuckerman, he “did most of the work” putting the book together, “helped by [J. D.] Bernal and [J. G.] Crowther.”  Individual authors included geneticist and director of the John Innes Horticultural Institute Cyril Darlington, Editor-Librarian of the Royal Institute of British Architects Edward Carter, “pioneer of scientific industrial management” Lyndall Urwick, Oxford nutritionist Hugh Sinclair, zoologist and neurologist J. Z. Young, agricultural scientist William Slater, Rothamsted statistician (and R. A. Fisher protégé) Frank Yates, embyrologist C. H. Waddington, French biochemist Louis Rapkine, and Cambridge zoologist Hugh Cott.

Zuckerman, Solly 1943

Solly Zuckerman at Tobruk in 1943

In Warfare State (2006), David Edgerton cites Science in War as an important example of the castigation by “progressive scientists” of the British state’s ability to manage the nation, as well as a crucial contribution to an influential picture of British science as essentially civilian, even in wartime, noting: “In a book of 144 pages only 12 were devoted to warlike technologies” (318).1 However, these 12 pages are the part of the book that concerns us here, because they do indeed appear to suggest something like what operational research was to become (34):

In the actual business of warfare, science has been used up to now almost exclusively on the technical side—for example, to improve weapons, transport, and communication.  It has hardly been used, at least by us, on the more general, and the more vitally important question of strategy and tactics.  These, on paper, depend on the special discipline of military science, which, however, has little or no relation to the natural and social sciences.  The true scientific departments of the Services concentrate either on detailed technical problems as they arise, or on general technical questions, such as the improvement of the ballistic properties of guns, or of the speed and fighting power of aeroplanes.  Yet the use of these weapons and the organization of the men who handle them are at least as much scientific problems as is their production.  The waging of warfare represents a series of human operations carried out for more or less definite ends.  Seeing whether these operations actually yield the results expected from them should be a matter of direct scientific analysis.  The ultimate answer is provided by victory or defeat, but failure to understand the factors contributing to that victory or defeat, and the degree to which each contributes, removes any secure ground for organizing further success.  A naïve belief in invincibility may have some value in morale, but, as experience in France has shown, it is a dangerous guide to strategy.

The question, it seems to me, is whether the people behind this suggestion actually sparked the development of OR groups, and the extent to which those groups constituted a novel thing.  It is well-known that OR-like activities existed in the late 1930s.  Indeed, Science in War points it out: “This has, indeed, been done to a certain extent with the tactical problems of naval and air fighting.”  But, Patrick Blackett’s research group at Anti-Aircraft Command would be founded a couple of months later, and this group (alongside an existing group at RAF Fighter Command helping integrate radar into flying tactics) would be recognized as the model on which later groups were developed.

I’ve ultimately concluded that the Tots and Quots group had little to do with instigating OR.  Blackett held a significant post at AA Command, but the creation of the post, not to mention his second post at RAF Coastal Command, was suggested by physiologist A. V. Hill (1886-1977), who had worked on anti-aircraft problems in World War I, and who pressed (mainly unsuccessfully) for reforms in the government bureaucracy as biological secretary of the Royal Society and as an MP for Cambridge University.  When Hill was granted his own Cabinet-level scientific advisory committee shortly after Blackett’s post was created, Undersecretary of the Treasury Alan Barlow (son-in-law of Horace Darwin, incidentally), wrote to the committee’s political chair, Maurice Hankey, to offer him that position:2

I think it is clear that the Government will have to set up some committee of the kind, if only to keep the scientific people quiet, and it is conceivable that it might be of some use.

The statement probably referred to both Hill’s agitation and Science in War, which I believe were uncoordinated (despite the fact that Blackett knew Hill rather well).  It nicely illustrates the government’s hostility to external suggestions for reform.  But this should not mean that the government and military were resistant to reform, period.

What seems to have happened was that operational research grew slowly out of ad hoc bureaucratic reforms proposed by established advisers—including Hill, but also Henry Tizard and radar specialist Robert Watson Watt—as well as out of the military’s own efforts to come to terms with the technical and tactical challenges of the war.  And, remarkably, there is something of a smoking gun on this point in the form of a memorandum Tizard wrote in the summer of 1941, clarifying the definition of what “operational research” was, as the term had been growing in importance (mainly due to Watson Watt).  He supposed that operational research constituted the activities described by the term, as well as other “operational statistics” being gathered, and concluded that it “should be, and no doubt is, regarded as a normal function of a well organized force” (my emphasis).  But he further argued that such work “demands a scientific training and outlook,” and therefore could be done by researchers from the civil service, while being directed by military officers.3 It was only following this memorandum’s clarification of what OR was that so-designated OR groups began to spread rapidly and fairly coherently throughout the British (and American, Canadian, and Australian) military services.

It was this rapid proliferation of OR groups that convinced British scientist-critics that it represented a fulfillment of the lessons of their criticism.  J. D. Bernal (who I suspect wrote the above-quoted passage of Science in War) was particularly quick on the draw.  In a September 1941 address to the British Association entitled “The Function of the Scientist in Government Policy and Administration,” he mentioned operational research among the wartime developments that convinced him that progress had been made: “With such an integrated body of information, research, development, execution, and control,” he argued, “we have the backbone of a scientific administration, one which is scientific through and through and not merely by the addition of a few eminent scientists…”4

In From Apes to Warlords, Zuckerman recorded that it was only in the record of the December 1941 dinner of Tots and Quots, that

I find the first mention of the term ‘operational research’. This is surprising, since the few who are now regarded as having founded the subject were all members of the club: Blackett, Bernal, Waddington—who in 1973 published a book entitled OR in World War 2 (Elek)—and myself. (404)

In fact, though, the timing makes perfect sense.  It was only when the lofty aspirations of the members of Tots and Quots were made to map onto limited-but-concrete reforms that those members began to assign significance to the term “operational research” (which had been used intermittently since 1938).  As important as OR was in the war, it did not represent the sea-change in relations between science and the state, and ultimately society, that scientist-critics imagined the world needed.  That point of view could only be sustained by supposing that until their criticisms took root, the state and military had been beholden to the same sort of “naïve belief” that the critics supposed had already destroyed France.

1 The authors actually apologized for the brevity of their treatment of military problems, observing that the constraints of secrecy limited their knowledge of such problems, and limited their ability to speak about problems to which they were privy.

2 The National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office, CAB 21/829, Alan Barlow to Lord Hankey, 18 September 1940.

3 Imperial War Museum, Documents Collection, Papers of Sir Henry Tizard, HTT 302, Memorandum from Tizard to Chief of Air Staff and Vice Chief of Air Staff, 17 July 1941.

4 J. D. Bernal, “The Function of the Scientist in Government Policy and Administration,” The Advancement of Science 2 (1942): 14-17.


1. Richard Carling - June 28, 2013

A fascinating area of late 1930s history that is surprisingly unexplored considering the profound effect that OR had on the allied conduct of warfare in the 1940s.

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