SIAM News Blog

Reflecting on and Reinventing SIAM Conferences

By James Nagy and Sven Leyffer

Since more of the world has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, we felt that now is a good time to reflect on the past three years of conferences, share our experiences, and outline SIAM’s developing plans for 2024 and beyond. The stress, heartache, and overall impact of the pandemic cannot be overstated, even as memories of school and workplace shutdowns, stay-at-home ordinances, and supply chain breakdowns begin to fade. We are tremendously grateful to SIAM’s members and volunteers for their amazing adaptability, patience, and continued engagement with our conferences and community during these challenging times. We thank the conference co-chairs and organizing committees that persevered to hold and execute meetings in previously unexplored formats, as well as the SIAM staff who worked relentlessly (and mostly behind the scenes) to find solutions for the many technological challenges that were associated with virtual and hybrid conferences. Their combined efforts ensured that SIAM’s conference program remained a strong focal point for the applied math community throughout the pandemic.

The planning process for each SIAM conference begins about two years before the meeting’s scheduled date and involves a lot of decision-making, from selecting and contracting the site to choosing the organizing committee and identifying invited speakers. The rapidly changing and unpredictable nature of COVID-19 complicated all of these steps. At the pandemic’s onset in the U.S. in early 2020, SIAM pivoted to a completely virtual format and waived all registration fees for its remaining 2020 conferences — despite potential financial losses due to staff costs and canceled hotel contracts. When it quickly became clear that the lockdowns would continue, SIAM’s Conferences Department—under the leadership of Richard Moore, Director of Programs and Services at SIAM—worked tirelessly to develop more sophisticated virtual platform options for the 2021 meetings. In late 2021, we had to face the reality of future surges in COVID-19 variants and enduring travel uncertainties. SIAM therefore decided that all 2022 U.S.-based SIAM conferences would take place in a fully hybrid format (excluding SIAM section meetings) to allow for a more seamless transition to online-only configurations if necessary. This agile approach turned out to be an excellent decision; when the Omicron variant struck in early 2022 and other professional organizations were forced to postpone their in-person events, we continued to hold our meetings. Unfortunately, the fully hybrid model is not financially sustainable in the long term because it almost doubles operating costs (due to additional technical support requirements at the conference venue) without increasing revenue.

SIAM conferences and events have experienced major shifts in format over the last several years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the left, attendees of a SIAM activity group webinar network via Zoom. On the right, audience members at the fully in-person 2023 SIAM Conference on Applications of Dynamical Systems—which took place in Portland, Ore., this May—listen to Nicole Abaid of Virginia Tech deliver an invited presentation about models of collective motion. SIAM photos.

Feedback from the SIAM community on the hybrid conferences in 2022 was mixed. While the hybrid model provided much-needed flexibility during uncertain times, in-person participants felt that the large number of virtual talks diminished the energy of the physical conference, significantly reduced the chance for impromptu discussion, and limited networking opportunities for students and postdoctoral researchers. As a result of both these comments and the additional costs of hybrid meetings, SIAM decided to return to fully in-person conferences in 2023 and take time to consider feasible format options for 2024 and beyond.

We recognize that many factors might prevent individuals from attending a SIAM conference in person, such as family obligations, visa restrictions, financial considerations, carbon footprint concerns, and illness. As such, we believe that the implementation of virtual options is critically important. Over the next few years, SIAM will continue to innovate and iteratively refine our approach to conferences. Our goal is to develop a model that preserves the energy of in-person activities, minimizes uncertainties, and offers some engagement opportunities for those who cannot travel. SIAM is not alone in this effort; plans for the 2027 International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics, which will take place in the Netherlands, include live broadcasts of a small number of sessions for mathematicians who are unable to physically attend the meeting.

Again, we are incredibly grateful to the dedicated SIAM volunteer community and staff. We are honored to work with all of you and feel enormously proud of SIAM’s adaptability throughout the pandemic. The Society is well positioned to lead the way for professional organizations that are engaging a broad community in their conferences and educational activities, and we look forward to working with you—our members—to make this a reality. Please send your suggestions and comments on current and future SIAM conferences to us at [email protected] or [email protected].

James Nagy is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics at Emory University. He is also SIAM’s Vice President for Programs. Nagy’s research focuses on numerical linear algebra, structured matrix computations, numerical solution of inverse problems, and image processing. Sven Leyffer is a senior computational mathematician at Argonne National Laboratory and the current President of SIAM. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Dundee in Scotland and works on nonlinear and mixed-integer optimization problems.

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