Maths TCC Follow-on-Fund: A National Taught Course Centre in Operational Research (NATCOR): 2011-2016

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Management Science


The concern to broaden and deepen UK doctoral study in the mathematical sciences was felt with particular force within the Operational Research (OR) community. As a consequence, NATCOR has enjoyed a very strong level of community support since its foundation in 2006. NATCOR's choice of a residential course model for delivery in part reflected a belief in its effectiveness in fully engaging participants and in part stemmed from an aim to build a larger and more strongly connected community of PhD students in OR to the longer term benefit of UK research in the subject. This latter aim has been strikingly fulfilled and the sense of a strong UK PhD community in OR is now palpable, with a newly established student conference effectively a NATCOR spin-off. The decision to offer five week-long courses meant that we could offer a curriculum sufficiently comprehensive in its coverage of the mathematics of OR. The choice of a two-year delivery cycle for the curriculum was dictated by a practical concern to have a sufficiently large student population (ie, of first and second year PhD students) to guarantee viability. The feedback we have received from students, supervisors, the wider community and recently from the EPSRC-commissioned DTZ reports suggest strongly that all of these basic design decisions have been vindicated as have other choices concerning NATCOR's structure for management and administration. We do not propose to make changes to these basic elements of NATCOR for the upcoming five-year period. Further, NATCOR will continue to profit from the support of both the OR Society and the Smith Institute for the period 2011-2016. Recent steps to make NATCOR more effective have included (i) the introduction of one-day workshops to complement two of our core courses and broaden their scope, (ii) an extension of the management team (Executive Committee) which now includes representatives of ten universities, (iii) engagement with the IMA to raise awareness of NATCOR more broadly, (iv) the commissioning of a new professionally designed website to more effectively promote course participation and facilitate course registration. Over the period 2011-2016 we plan to further strengthen NATCOR (inter alia) by (i) mitigating the risk of a downturn in student numbers by recruiting from as wide a student population as possible, (ii) conducting a major review of course content, (iii) facilitating formal assessment of students, (iv) continuing to subject all provision to rigorous evaluation, (v) continuing to bear down on costs such that the provision can be offered over the next five years with fee levels which are little changed from those at present, (v) evaluating NATCOR's impact on students' doctoral education and career choices and (vi) working toward sustainability post 2016.

Planned Impact

NATCOR plays a major role in underpinning the long term health of the UK research training base in Operational Research (OR). The potential impact of a strong national research base in OR should not be underestimated. OR lies at the interdisciplinary interface of many fields and it cuts across a broad range of important financial, environmental and societal challenges. Such challenges include the national transport infrastructure, NHS effectiveness and efficiency and environmental drives to improve productivity and reduce pollution. Research advances in OR have a key role to play in producing sustainable solutions to these major national (and international) issues. The UK is internationally recognised for the strength of its applied OR and this has been the case for many years. However, as the 2004 International Review in OR pointed out, in the long term UK applied OR will only flourish if its mathematical foundations are strong. By underpinning early stage research training in the mathematics of OR, NATCOR is directly contributing to the UK's strength in applied OR. This, in turn, feeds into the national scientific impact agenda by enabling ground breaking work in real world environments and by realising some of the enormous potential that OR has to address major societal issues. There are many examples of such work across the UK OR landscape. NATCOR has always aimed to be industrially relevant. Some members of the Advisory Board are drawn from industry and practice. Moreover, our teaching includes industrial case studies to stress the importance and relevance of the mathematics being taught. A long term goal of OR is to bring about a fundamental step change in the impact that decision support systems and methodologies have on industry, commerce and government. Although the UK has a high international profile in applied OR, there is still major potential for improved uptake of OR techniques and methods. There are significant economic and environmental benefits to be gained from the effective deployment of such approaches. NATCOR will aim to impart a knowledge and understanding of the underpinning mathematics and technologies that will be required to ensure that industrial and commercial uptake is more extensive in the future. As part of delivering this mission, we intend to highlight and reinforce the importance of the impact agenda across our courses. A particularly significant message that we aim to deliver in NATCOR courses is that, in OR, the impact agenda leads to major scientific OR challenges. For example, the modelling of the complexity and uncertainty of modern real world environments such as airports or hospitals represents a series of major OR challenges that will only be satisfactorily addressed by innovative and sophisticated methodologies. The NATCOR TCC plays a crucial role in stressing this view. The gap between academic practice and industrial use is much discussed within the OR community and NATCOR is playing its part in seeking to close this gap. Another important aspect of NATCOR's activity is the impact that it has had on the UK PhD student experience in OR. The feedback that we have had from our courses has demonstrated that this has been very positive. PhD students have had the opportunity to engage with lecturers from across the UK (and from abroad). In addition to providing our student body with a broad grounding in some of the fundamental aspects of the mathematics of OR, the TCC has also facilitated a highly effective network of PhD students across the broad range of disciplinary areas that represent modern OR. Indeed, the networking effect of NATCOR's mode of operation represents one of the Centre's key successes. This network has led to the establishment of a national PhD student conference in OR.


10 25 50