Session Report: Strategic Research and Decision making

On Wednesday August 1 st, over thirty attendees joined the session on “Strategic Research and Decision Making”, held in Plaza C before lunch. This session, chaired by David Todd, featured three presentations reporting on an interesting set of studies. While diverse in their topical area, these studies shared a focus on using system dynamics tools for improving decision-making in different domains.

First Ozge Pala from Radboud University Nijmegen presented a joint study with Dirk Vriens and Jac Vennix on Effects of Causal Loop Diagrams on Escalating Commitment. This study investigated whether causal loop diagrams can help reduce the commitment by political and business decision-makers to unsuccessful courses of action. Ozge highlighted that research suggests different reasons can underlie escalation of commitment to poor policies, the most important of which is the justification of actions already taken: e.g. we wouldn’t stop a bad project because that signals are in-competency in starting the project in the first place. Moreover, previous work has suggested that some techniques such as removing worries of decision-makers and setting stopping rules beforehand can help avoid the escalation trap. In this study Pala and her colleagues used experiments with 168 undergraduate students to investigate if offering a list of variables, and causal loop diagrams, can reduce the commitment of students to a poor initiative they have started in an experimental setting. They use both behavioral (the amount of money invested) and self-reports (the attitudes towards courses of action) to measure commitment. Their results suggest that both lists of variables and causal loop diagrams help reduce the commitment. However, no significant difference was observed between the two except in one condition. Pala also highlighted that lists of variables and arguments have been employed in previous research with varying degrees of success.

Next, Erik Mosekilde from Technical University of Denmark discussed the new advances in application of dynamic modeling in biology. He highlighted that a growing number of researchers in biology and health sciences apply dynamic models similar to system dynamic work to complex dynamic issues in biology. He gave several examples from this field of “systems biology” and highlighted how studies have looked at phenomena in multiple levels, from cell to organism. His examples included the optimization of drug delivery in rational drug development process, patterns of insulin absorption in the body, and the dynamics of hypertensive rats, activity. Dr. Mosekilde finished his talk by emphasizing the importance of further link between SD community and the work under progress in systems biology. Given the speed of growth of this new field, and availability of data and experimentation, SD researchers can learn a lot from their colleagues in systems biology. Finally, he welcomed the idea of inviting some system biologists to join the next SD conference.

The last presentation was delivered by David Todd on a collaborative project including Wolstenholme, Monk, along with the presenter to do a cost-benefit analysis for mental health services overhaul in the UK. Over one million people are on incapacity benefit due to mental illnesses, leading to multiple costs to the society and for the medical system. A proposal has been put forward to reduce this number through the services of 10000 additional mental health professionals. Traditional cost benefit analysis suggested a very strong support for this proposal. However, the traditional method did not include the delays in training and employing these resources, the impact on the labor market for therapists, and the delays in finding jobs for the individuals who benefit from these services and can return to labor market. By including these considerations, a cost-benefit analysis building on a simple system dynamics model showed much more moderate benefits for the program, even though some benefits are still expected (from the original 4 billion pound estimated net benefit to 1-1.3 billion). Todd also highlighted the importance of data availability which allowed the team to finish the analysis in three weeks. The study, despite the simplicity of the SD model used, emphasizes the importance of delays and non-equilibrium dynamics commonly ignored in traditional cost-benefit analysis.

Hazhir Rahmandad