For those of us taking a break from the INFORMS conference, the Master’s golf tournament holds special attention. Not for the golf (though the golf is wonderful), but for the commercials. Practically every commercial break has an IBM commercial featuring some of its luminaries from the past. Prominent among them is Ralph Gomory. Everyone in operations research knows of Ralph. For the optimization-oriented types, he is the Gomory of Gomory cuts, a fundamental structure in integer programming. For the application-oriented types, he was the long-time head of research for IBM. For the funding and policy-oriented types, he was the long-time head of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supporting analysis on globalization, technology, and education. Great career, when you can be highly influential three different ways (so far)!
During his time at IBM, Ralph stressed the need for research and development to work together. This view that research should be grounded in real business needs is one that I think has greatly strengthened areas such as operations research and business analytics. While there is no dearth of theoretical underpinnings in these areas, the fundamental research is better by being guided by practical need. This has led to the insights that give us fast optimization codes, stronger approaches to risk and uncertainty, and the ability to handle huge amounts of data.
There is a full version of the IBM video that lasts about 30 minutes (currently on the front of their Smarter Planet page). Ralph shows up in the introduction, then around 24:43 in an extended discussion of the relationship between research and business need, and again near the end (30:08).
This conference would have been a lot different (and less interesting) without the career of Ralph as a researcher, executive and foundation leader. We are lucky he began in operations research.