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The Union and Médecins Sans Frontières approach to operational research.Operational research (OR) has become a hot topic at national meetings, international conferences and donor fora. The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Operational Centre Brussels strongly promote and implement OR with colleagues in low- and middle-income countries. Here we describe how the two organisations define OR, and explain the guiding principles and methodology that underpin the strategy for developing and expanding OR in those countries. We articulate The Union's and MSF's approach to supporting OR, highlighting the main synergies and differences. Then, using the Malawi National Tuberculosis Control Programme as an example, we show how OR can be embedded within tuberculosis control activities, leading to changes in policy and practice at the national level. We discuss the difficult, yet vitally important, issue of capacity building, and share our vision of a new paradigm of product-related training and performance-based OR fellowships as two ways of developing the necessary skills at country level to ensure research is actually performed. Finally, we highlight the need to consider and incorporate into practice the ethical components of OR. This is a key moment to be involved in OR. We are confident that in partnership with interested stakeholders, including the World Health Organization, we can stimulate the implementation of quality, relevant OR as an integral part of health service delivery that in turn will lead to better health for people, particularly for those living in the poorer parts of the world.