Re-emerging field contributes to 10,000 patents yearly

September 09, 2002

LINTHICUM, MD, September 9, 2002 - An analysis of patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office over a six-year period shows that an average of 10,000 patents a year incorporate operations research techniques like optimization and simulation, according to an article in a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®).

The field is making a larger than anticipated impact in medicine and is central to telecommunications, the study observes.

Operations research ("OR") examines an organization's operations and uses mathematical models, computer models, and other scientific and analytical approaches to find better ways of doing them. Operations researchers work in industry, government, health care, and the military.

Terms coined by operations researchers have found widespread use in business and science, the study notes.

"What is striking is the extent to which the words optimization and simulation were used," says Frederic H. Murphy, School of Business and Management, Temple University. "Two of the most defining words for our technologies have entered the mainstream."

He also concludes that the study of waiting lines or "queues," another operations research focus, is critical in inventions.

"From the number of hits for queue," he writes, "I gather that a lot of effort is going into managing waits of people, bits, packets, and so forth."

The findings appear in "The Occasional Observer:, A New Source for What is Happening in Operations Research Practice" by Prof. Murphy. The Occasional Observer appears in the journal Interfaces, an INFORMS publication. The study can be found online at

In the years from 1996 to 2001, the Patent Office issued an average of 156,000 patents annually.

Surprises in Medical Field
Although the marriage of biology and technology has yielded a plethora of medically related patents, Dr. Murphy was surprised to discover that a large number of these patents use the mathematical modeling techniques of operations research to achieve best results.

"The extent of the use of OR in medicine was striking to me," he writes. "This is a frontier area for the field in both modeling and solution algorithms. The modeling and solving of combinatorial problems associated with molecular designs is increasingly becoming an important partner to the laboratory in biology and medicine.

"For example, the genome project was conceived as biology but was resolved through computing and information technology."

Not Changing the World, but...
Commenting on the operations research profession and its critics, Prof. Murphy writes, "To those who complain that our field has not met its promise because we have not changed the world, maybe we have not, but approximately 10,000 patents are issued each year with some OR content or reference...

"Using $10,000 per patent as a rough estimate of the cost, 10,000 patents per year means that individuals and companies are spending $100 million a year patenting ideas, products, whatever that rely on some OR. This does not include the development costs incurred by the companies. I say this $100 million demonstrates that we are as relevant as any other business discipline. We just operate under a different intellectual model."

Table: Number of patents by operations research keyword in United States Patent Office Database for the period 1996-2001 and Jan. 2002, ranked by frequency (top 10)

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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