Global Concerns Global Concerns - XVIII

Conferences are one of the most important activities of IFAC and AACC, and, for that matter, most professional societies. This should not be unexpected for humans, social animals who crave interaction with others of their species. In the old days (a relative term based on one's own age) it took a tremendous effort to get together if the participants lived far apart. I enjoy reading about the early years of the United States where news traveled very slowly - about as fast as a horse could go. Results of Presidential elections were not known throughout the country for weeks. Representatives from the States had to travel for days just to get to the site of a meeting. I expect people only took such trips if they expected that the meetings were important. One could get to a meeting about as fast as one could communicate with colleagues by post so written communication did not have the advantage of speed.

In previous columns I have written about the history of IFAC and the fact that international conferences in the control field were not common before the 1950s. When IFAC was founded in the 1950s we in the United States found the need to create the AACC as the US representative to IFAC. The first statements of purpose for AACC were quite explicit about being the IFAC representative from the US and for promoting cooperation among the constituent societies of AACC. There was nothing said about sponsoring technical conferences. In fact, from the early days of AACC until 1982, AACC did not, itself, sponsor technical meetings. The JACCs mentioned in the previous Global Concerns column were national technical meetings under the umbrella of AACC but hosted and run by AACC constituent societies in sequence each summer. Since 1982 these meetings have been called ACCs and have been sponsored by AACC itself under the guidance of an ACC steering committee of AACC. The annual conferences have gotten bigger and better through the years and the one just completed in Albuquerque attracted over 1000 participants, not only from the United States. The ACC is loosely related to IFAC as one of IFAC's regional conferences but it is strictly an AACC affair.

The purpose of this column and the one which you will see in Spring 1998 is to reflect on such conferences and speculate on how this evolution may continue into the future. In earlier versions of the JACC and ACC there were many more attendees than authors. One could go to a conference and "sit at the feet of the masters". Over time this ratio changed. Part of the reason is that the ratio of industrial to academic participants lowered and academics typically are required to have a paper accepted for presentation at a meeting before local management will pay travel expenses for attending. It is now common for there to be as many authors as participants although there are always some non-authors participating and often authors of multiple papers in attendance. However, even with the requirement by employers that only authors are supported to attend meetings, often the most important part of such conferences is the opportunity to talk with colleagues, not so much to hear lectures based on papers printed in paper or electronic proceedings volumes. The pressure to have large numbers of papers at the meetings has resulted in numerous parallel sessions, that number approaching 20 at large conferences, and poster sessions. One is now faced with not hearing either 100% of the papers being presented or not hearing as many as 95% of the papers depending on whether or not one attends a session at any particular time.

The plenary sessions, typically one hour in length are quite popular at these meetings. It is not uncommon to have 50-75% of all conference attendees at each plenary session even though they are often held early in the morning. Plenary session lecturers usually exert much effort in the preparation of their talk and it appears to me that a large majority of them do a very good job of communicating with the audience. It is also viewed as an honor to be asked to give such a lecture - something good for one's resume. From a historical point of view, a review of plenary papers at a series of conferences tends to describe important directions for a field over time. I recently had the opportunity to review the 35-year history of the IFAC Congresses (IEEE Control Systems, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1996) and found the plenary lectures at these Congresses to be a useful indicator of this history.

The emphasis on writing papers is not all positive. There is often not great interest by industrial employers in having their best work published. If academic employers use paper count as an indication of progress, this too can compromise quality. If the real motivation for writing a paper is to get an airplane ticket to a conference, this in itself can be detrimental. Indeed papers at many conferences are less than stellar. The good news is that conferences with stronger reputations attract numerous authors and a careful review process can ensure that only the better papers are actually presented.

Modern technology is beginning to influence conferences. Days of lugging around a 20 pound box of proceedings are quickly passing - replaced by the light-weight CD-ROM. That makes it easier for us old timers whose backs need to be saved for tennis and golf. Shelf space in the office is also preserved. But what are the most substantive impacts of new technology on conferences? We leave that for the Spring 1998 Global Concerns column.

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