Operations Research and Think Tanks

Video Lecture Part One:

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Video Lecture Part Two:

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There are two connected elements to this topic that we are going to explore in both parts of this two-part video: Operations Research and Think Tanks.

Operations or operational research which was originally a World War Two military strategy and was expanded during the Cold War era, but is now a wide-ranging set of problem-solving techniques and advanced mathematical and statistical analytical methods that help governments, corporations, institutions and even individuals make better decisions about future events.

Think Tanks are often private or semi-private research institutes and organisations that employ operations research and other methods to investigate and advocate for solutions to economic, social, political, military and cultural problems.

[Operational Research – WW2]

During World War 2, British pilots were outnumbered by German pilots, at least initially, but the allies won the air war over Britain, with the assistance of operations research, which used an ‘operational’ system based on radar observations and mathematical predictions to make forecasts about the course of German Bombers. These predictions were used to direct the [fighter pilots], not to where the bombers had been, or where there were when observed, but rather to where the [bombers] were going to be when the fighters reached them. The pilots, the aircraft, the [radar towers] and operators, and the commanders were all part of a single command and control system – known as the Dowding system – that could direct the operations with high levels of efficiency – it took just 17 minutes from radar station observation to pilots scrambling, climbing to the correct altitude and to engaging the incoming bombers, reaching them before the bombers could attack their targets. Contemporary operational research is thought of as an advanced subdomain of applied mathematics, and often called management science or decision science, as it involves modelling, statistical analysis and methods of optimisation to arrive at predictions for solving complex-decision making problems.


Operational research was made famous by the RAND Corporation, which is an American ‘Research and Development’ think tank established in 1948 following World War 2 by the Douglas Aircraft Company in order to advise the United States Armed forces. RAND is now a non-profit organisation that is funded by the U.S government, corporations, universities and its own private funds, and deeply embedded in the US Department of Defense, the Pentagon and other agencies. While primarily a military ‘think tank’, RAND uses operations research and applied science and mathematical modelling and other technicals to problem address national issues in economics, healthcare, artificial intelligence, as well as advise on global social and cultural policies, from transportation to terrorism.

[Think Tank]

A think tank is a research institute or policy centre, which conducts research and lobbies or advocates to government and businesses on a topics including military strategy, economic, social and cultural policy as well as technology, health, education and so on. Think Tanks can be non-profit organisations, funded by the government, or sponsored by advocacy groups and corporations. Although a modern phenomenon, there is evidence of organisations of scholars, lawyers, and priests, in Asia and Europe, who consulted with emperors and kings on military, economic and social decisions. We will come back to one of the oldest thinks tanks in part two of this video. Operational research is ‘thought-based-on-data’, which in the 1970s was considered a military technology of its own, as predicting military and non-military behaviour of communist regimes became part of the United States Cold War strategy. Think Tanks like RAND conducted research into rocket technologies, new materials and engineering processes, and although they extensively supported military projects, their results had great benefits for national health, energy, education and economic policy. Some of the earliest computer models to simulate global climate change emerged from RAND. [Hospitals] – Modern hospitals, for example, benefitted from RAND and other think tank research that led to the development of [intensive care units] and more effective organisational operations, especially in urban hospitals.  

[Systems Approach]

Operational Research and Think Tanks – both employ different iterations of what is called a Systems Approach, which involves interdisciplinary teams (made up of individuals with a range of knowledge and expertise) taking into consideration the connections between the interdependent parts (both natural and man-made) that occur within a specific space and time. This systems approach is used to forecast outcomes for the future by modelling abstract concepts.


[Herman Kahn] was a prominent military strategist, systems theorist and futurist with the Rand Corporation, who left to co-found of the Hudson Institution in 1961, a politically conservative think tank based in Washing D.C, which focussed the future of the Western World. Kahn became well known for his analysis of the consequences of nuclear war in his 1960 book ‘On Thermonuclear War’, and the concept of ‘MAD” – or mutually assured destruction – partially inspiring Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy on the subject, Dr Strangelove.

“Operations Research incorporates the investigation of organisational structure, communication and control with the aim of increasing the effectiveness of the executives’ decision making” (Herman Kahn 1960 ‘On Thermonuclear War’).

Kahn’s alternative thinking and strategy shook the military establishment at the time. He became famous for unorthodox strategy and infamous for thinking the unthinkable.


His book explored the concept of ‘megadeath’, the potential for one million human deaths caused by a nuclear explosion, which actually helped the public consider the future in terms of what would happen following nuclear world war. Kahn’s observation that in a nuclear war, at the time, it was reasonable to expect between 2 and 160 million deaths and he famously asked: “will the survivors envy the dead?”  This concern has occupied writers and artists for decades with stories like [Mad Max] and the [Fallout] game series continuing to imagine what such a post-apocalyptic future would have been like.

On that dark note, we are going to end part one of this video – in the next part we will pick up on the development of operations research and continue to look at how organisations called think tanks have played a part in its development.

[Part Two]

Welcome back to part two of this video in which we are examining the rise of operations research and think tanks – which have created a way of thinking about the future that is scenario driven and heavily influenced by the logic and organisation of the Cold War era. In the last part, we discussed Herman Kahn’s concept of ‘Megadeath’, which was a much-needed warning regarding the desolate future that would result from a nuclear war in the 1960s. However, in the current era, we are starting to see the emergence of different technologies that could result in an even worse dystopian reality.   


Australian Artificial Intelligence researcher [Hugh de Garis], posited the term ‘Gigadeath’ to describe the projected death of billions of people following the type of future war between the agents of Artificial Intelligence. This would not necessarily be a humans versus machines war, as with Jame Cameron’s [Terminator] series, but what de Garis calls an Artilect War’ in which the [Cosmist] faction, who support the artificial intelligent god-like machines he calls [’artilects’], and the ‘Terrans’ the who oppose them, go to war, which de Garis predicts happening sometime before the end of the 21st century. de Garis published a book in 2005 describing his views on this topic entitled The Artilect War: Cosmists vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines.

[DELPHI Method]

To switch gears and go back to operations research and think tanks, another important [RAND] outcome was the popularisation of the [Delphi method], which had a major impact on operations research techniques. Named after the Oracle of Delphi, the Delphi method uses groups of experts, and multiple rounds of anonymised questionnaires to focus on key issues and develop forecasts for the future. One of the first uses of the Delphi method in 1964 reported on long-term trends in science and technology development, population control, automation, space exploration, weapon technology and war prevention. Specific technologies considered in the Delphi report included vehicle and highway management, automation and robotics, educational technologies, and high-speed networked communications.


Two of the authors of that report Theodore J Gordon and Olaf Helmer, and others from RAND created the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California, in 1968 to explore possible desirable futures and seek the means to enhance their potential reality. The Institute forecast socio-economic trends and their future implications, and was unlike RAND and other think tanks at the time as it made its studies available to the public. Operations Research became very popular during the Cold War and by 1968 RAND was deeply embedded in the US Department of Defence and worked with other Government Departments and services, that were looking to go beyond short term planning. However, Operations Research and Think Tanks lead to more than military strategy, and in Paris in 1973, the [World Futures Studies Federation] held a conference dedicated to peace and imagining operational research and futures studies at a global level. Although as Wendell Bell argues the majority of futures research was dominated by “War Managers” until the 1990s and the end of the Cold War.

[The Limits of Growth]

Another important development in the 1970s was the book the Limits of Growth, which based on research funded by Germany’s largest think tank and research institute, the [Volkswagen Foundation] – not connected to the automotive industry. The limits of Growth predicted that population and industrial growth will stop in the 21st Century, based on variables including war and global trade, industrial output per capita, energy availability and so on. The authors concluded that sustainability can only occur if we find alternative energy sources and drastically restrict population growth. The limits of Growth was attacked by the left for ignoring the conditions experienced by the poor, and attacked by the right for failing to take into account scientific developments that would account for other solutions, such as better nuclear-powered energy sources and agricultural technologies. But the book had a big impact on the development of global modelling, and alongside [Rachel Carson’s 1962 Environmental Science book Silent Spring] it to helped to make environmentalism a foundational element of forecasting and prediction.  


Thinks tanks have an important relationship with the media and communication industries because as organisations dedicated to informing politicians, advocating and lobbying for particular future strategies, and conducting research for public policy, they rely heavily on experts in communications to get their messages across. Think tanks rely on direct communication with politicians through [networking], they require [social media] platforms, and web-based media to interface broadly with public audiences, and they use events like [conferences] and panel presentations to promote and share the work of their researchers, especially within the private sector investors.


The relationship between think tanks and media industries goes back to the UK think tank, the Fabian Society, Britain’s oldest think tank, which was famous for its of use of printed pamphlets since the end of the 19th century (1884). Thinks tanks are often described as ‘ideas factories’ but that is only half their role, as writer Jonathan Rowe commented – Think Tanks, don’t just think, they justify, and they advocate, lobby, and sell their ideas and they require media and communication strategies and professionals to do that effectively.


Think Tanks are most often criticised for favouring ‘rightwing’ solutions, over leftwing ones, particularly in terms of economy, environmental and social policy. A Guardian editorial from 2018 describes UK think tanks as primarily funded by the ‘dark’ money from secretive billionaires seeking to influence elections and change the broader political landscape, calling them  “… fronts for vested interests, concealed under a veneer of mock-academia and questionable charitable status.”

[Australian Think Tanks]

Although Australia is quite a small country, in terms of its population, just close to 25 million, we have quite a few think tanks, with 48 listed on the Wikipedia page, and they range from the very small to the very large organisations. These think tanks are divided into the typical binary politically spectrum of  ‘Left And Right’, and while there are centrists and impartial think tanks, the majority, particularly in Australia, are aligned with the major political parties, their values, histories and traditions. Over the years there have been many attempts by Australian journalist to uncover the degrees of ties between the think tanks, political parties, corporations and private funding. There numerous examples of Australian Journalists working to uncover the funding arrangement for the national think tank bodies and the ABC Media Watch series has an important episode on funding disclosure: https://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/episodes/disclosing-the-funding-of-think-tanks/9980716

One of the roles of journalists is to ask questions about the influence that organisations, like think tanks, have over government policy and examine their relationship to private corporate funding – much of which is kept secret and hidden from the public.


As this video is designed for students studying Media and Communication at an Australian university I thought it might be useful to take a closer look at some of our nation’s biggest think tanks.

First, is the Centre for Independent Studies, which is based in Sydney and founded in 1976 by Greg Lindsay. The CIS is described as a classic ‘liberal’ in the Australian – not the American – sense of the word and modelled on the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). CIS policies favour market deregulation, limiting the size and scope of government, and this includes a reduction in the funding and services provided by the government to families, the unemployed, and immigrants and refugees. It was heavily in favour of the Coalition government’s approach to issues like the deregulation of shopping hours and its research and lobbying agenda has been funded by many large corporations over the years, from McDonald’s to BHP and Philip Morris.


The Melbourne based Institute of Public Affairs – the IPA – is another highly conservative think-tank based in Melbourne, which was established during the Second World War in 1943.  The IPA is connected to senior Liberal Party figures and its economic policies focus on the deregulation of the Australian economy, lower taxation, abolishing the minimum wage and the privatisation of national government bodies. IPA funding has included sources like Western Mining, BHP, and Telstra among others, and although the funding ties are unclear the IPA has received public support from mining magnate Gina Rinehart, Media Emperor Rupert Murdoch, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell. The IPA has been an extensive supporter of Australian climate-change sceptics.


The Chifley Research Centre is a think tank that is operated by the Australian Labor Party (the ALP) As a non-profit organisation, the Centre is able to fundraise and donate funds directly to the Labor party.  The Centre describes itself as a progressive organisation with a social-democratic foundation, but from its website, it can be said to be actively involved in recording and publishing the history of the Labor party. Its primary policy focus is work and labour relations, but it also contributes to general economy decisions, as well as environmental and social policy. It’s corporate benefactors have included BHP and Woodside Australian Energy.

Other Left Wing and centrist think tanks do exist, including Per Capita, The Australian Institute, The Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and The Green Institute and for those of you studying media and communication with an interest in whichever side of politics that are many different types of jobs and roles at think tanks that are often advertised on sites like seek.com.


I want to end this lecture with an important point about the type of future that operations research and think tanks specialise in.

[Cold War]

In the book ‘The Future: A Very Short Introduction”, by Jennifer M. Gidley,  there is a great section on Historian Jenny Andersson’s view on think tanks as part of a quest to domesticate the future. She argues that the operations research and think tank approach to the future is to bring it under control through the logic of scientific positivism embedded in a general theory of prediction that is the product of the Cold War period of the 1950s and 1960s. Gidley cites Anderson’s reference to the RAND Corporations specialisation in trying to perfect the science of prediction through developing ‘ a diverse range of predictive techniques, mainly based on mathematical methods and relying on then newly acquired computational power.


“RAND built an epistemic Cold War arsenal: these techniques were used to know an enemy whose future behaviour was to be be revealed through forms of virtual experimentation and ‘synthetic fact’ in the absence of conventional knowledge.”

Andersson, Jenny 2015. ‘ Chapter 1 Midwives of the Future: Futurism, Futures Studies and the Shaping of the Global Imagination, in The Struggle for the Long-Term in Transnational Science and Politics Forging the Future. Edited ByJenny Andersson, Eglė Rindzevičiūtė. Routledge: New York.


As we discussed in previous videos, there are those involved in Futures Studies, who draw on operations research methods and who work for think tanks. However, there is also recognition that the science of forecasting and the mathematical and statistical models for prediction, are framed around the idea that there is a single future that we are inevitably moving towards like a road or a track and that it can be tied down and locked in within a precise probability framework.


There is another view in Futures Studies, that doesn’t view the future as one single territory that can be colonised and controlled but rather advocates for pluralism, and argues that there are many different and possible futures that we can imagine, design and create collaboratively.


That’s one of the reasons we spend so much time with science fiction in this subject; to remind ourselves of the many different visions for the future that those in the creative industries are actively building for us to imagine what kinds of futures we want and don’t want. The epistemology – or the way of understanding the world – of RAND and think tanks is largely product of the Cold War era, but as Wendell Bell argues, science doesn’t constitute a unified way of thinking. Rather, science if many different ways of knowing, each relative to a particular topic and community of scientists that it involves. People often mistake this for a weakness: climate sceptics deny the scientific consensus on climate change pointing to the many different theories, models, and forecasts as a failure to prove man-made global warming. However, as Gidley argues, 21st century science has moved on from the closed-system and mechanical world view of the Cold War era, to an increasingly pluralistic understanding open to new possibilities of complexity, which means that although the warning signs and predictions are dire it is not too late for us to meaningfully contribute and transform the present to improve the predictions for the future.

[Remember: the future is now.]

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