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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):


Book Review: Randall Wakelam’s The Science of Bombing September 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 101 (September 2010): 671-672.

© 2010 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.

Randall T. Wakelam.
The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command. ix + 347 pp., illus., apps., index. Toronto/London: University of Toronto Press, 2009. $55 (paper).
William Thomas

During World War II, scientists worked for the British, Canadian, and American military services to study plans, tactics, training, and procedures to see whether military practices made sense in light of up‐to‐date information from the field. The manner of this work varied from conducting special investigations, to parsing statistics, to building sophisticated mathematical models of such military operations as hunting for U‐boats. This work was known in Britain as “operational research” (OR) and was later established as its own profession. (more…)