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AMS Committee on Meetings and Conferences (COMC) 1997 Annual Report

COMC met September 20, 1997 in Chicago. In attendance were Roy L. Adler, Bettye Anne Case, Robert Daverman, John H. Ewing, Robert M. Fossum, Susan Friedlander, Bill Harris, Isom Herron, Evan Houston, Arthur M. Jaffe, Leslie M. Sibner, Joel H. Spencer, Karen Vogtmann, Sylvia Wiegand, Jim Maxwell, Hope Daly, and Robin Hagan Aguiar.

There were four basic issues. Here is a brief report card:

AMS Sectional Meetings: A-OK.
AMS Sessions at Meetings of Other Organizations: OK but not done very often.
AMS Summer Conference Programs: Troublesome, survival problematic.
AMS National Meeting: Positive, optimistic, with perennial concerns of size and focus.

1. AMS Sectional Meetings

A subcommittee consisting of Bettye Anne Case, Robert Daverman, Evan Houston (chair), and Deborah Sulsky submitted its report, Evan Houston giving an oral summary.

The heart of the report (both written and oral) was a strong vote of confidence in the current system and, most particularly, in the Secretariat. The associate secretary in charge of each meeting is the key person. They have considerable leeway. They encourage formation of special sessions, and they can experiment with new formats. This is all going very well.

Some technical matters in format had already been agreed to by the Secretariat. No action was necessary.

Moderate financial losses have been sustained at these meetings for the past few years. Steps are in place to correct this, but even if those problems persist, the importance of these meetings to the community far outweighs these concerns.

There was a discussion concerning putting abstracts on the Web. John Ewing pointed out potential technical problems with doing this. COMC felt this would be a significant aid to mathematicians planning or deciding on a trip to a Sectional Meeting. Further, seeing an abstract might lead to fruitful mathematical collaboration. The printed program remains the program of record. But a webpage that is updated daily (as is already done with authors, titles and times), even if the formatting is less than perfect, is highly desirable. In the end we voted unanimously: COMC endorses assigning a high priority to the development of a system for putting abstracts on the Web in a timely fashion. (Staff is now investigating costs for implementing this new service, with the intention of implementing with modest effort.)

2. AMS Sessions at Meetings of Other Organizations

A subcommittee consisting of Isom Herron (chair), Jerrold Marsden and James Hyman presented its report, Isom Herron giving the oral report.

The key connection of this type is with AAAS. There is a mathematics component in their annual meeting, Warren Paige heading their mathematics section. In discussion this was seen as a very positive collaboration so long as the mathematical content was interesting to a broad audience. A February 1997 session on Geometry with Frank Morgan on soap bubbles, Doris Schattschneider on Escher, and other fine speakers was considered a model. Other sessions, such as one on mathematics education reform, were much less successful. COMC encourages continued support of this project.

There were few other such sessions, and that led to discussion of other possible venues. For example, in the report Jerrold Marsden writes of possible interaction with the IEEE CDC (control) meeting. Without endorsing any particular such sessions, COMC feels the AMS should look favorably at holding such sessions when the opportunity presents itself.

3. AMS Summer Conference Programs

Here we have a problem. We concentrated on the AMS-IMS-SIAM Summer Research Conferences, which are run by the AMS. These consist of five to seven different one-week conferences held in the same place during the summer.

A timeline: Summer 1998 is set; funding for Summer 1999 is set, and the committee is currently at work. The issue is really beyond that date, at which time a new funding proposal will have to be made.

On the positive side these are good conferences. They attract typically fifty to seventy mathematicians, they concentrate in one area, and there is fruitful collaboration. This writer, Arthur Jaffe and others reported very positive experiences at such meetings. Isom Herron noted the particularly good effect such conferences have on younger mathematicians.

The problem is the lack of applications. Over the past three years no proposals were rejected and the committee itself went to considerable effort to get good people to submit proposals. The committee (now chaired by Barbara Keyfitz) is doing an excellent job. The AMS staff handles pretty much all of the chores of housing, finances, etc., so that the organizers do not have a particularly onerous burden.

We were somewhat at a loss to explain the lack of applications. Our general feeling was that it was connected to the great abundance of meetings and workshops that now exist. Both MSRI and IMA run many workshops, as do more specialized centers like DIMACS. Further, there is more opportunity for meetings in other countries. The feeling, though we were not at all certain, was that the AMS program was being crowded out. Then again, perhaps the program has simply run out of steam.

Still, on the mathematical side, there was relative agreement. While the programs are mathematically interesting, the lack of enthusiasm among potential applicants is a very serious drawback. If mathematics is not to be an enthusiastic enterprise then it's hard to see the point of it. Ways to fix the program may be devised, but we cannot in good conscience recommend pushing for refunding of a program that our community itself seems so reticent to endorse.

4. The Annual Meeting: Size and Focus

The Annual Meeting is certainly a success. But is it too big? Is it not focused enough on our core mission? Are researchers avoiding the meeting? A lively discussion of this perennial issue produced no clear results. Data giving participation from top research institutions over the past ten years indicates no diminishment of interest. The number of research papers given is strong, particularly in the Special Sessions which now predominate. Some feel the program is too full - with far too many evening sessions. Others say that's fine as they can pick and choose what they want.

We are concerned that the control mechanism for the meetings has broken down. De jure, the National Program Committee must approve all events. But that committee (chaired by this writer 1994-6) sees its main mission as selection of Invited Speakers and, secondarily, of Special Sessions. Bob Daverman pointed out that they simply don't have the context in which to decide which new panels, forums, special events or whatever to let in. De facto, these decisions are now being made by the Secretariat.

5. Future Projects

Karen Vogtmann will chair a subcommittee to examine Special Lectures and Special Projects in 1998.

COMC will meet again in Chicago on September 26, 1998.

6. COMC Membership

As of November 1997 the members of COMC were:

Permanent invited guests:

AMS Staff:

This report was prepared by Joel H. Spencer, Chair of COMC, with the assistance of the committee.