Conference information for organisers

Run a Conference with the IMA

As a Learned Society the IMA organises conferences throughout Britain that promote the understanding of Mathematics and its Applications.

Some conferences are regular fixtures in member’s diaries (Mathematics of Surfaces X, Cryptography and Coding IX), and others are designed for growing or niche areas of Mathematics. Conferences are organised by your Scientific Committee working together with the IMA.

We will:

  • Host the conference
  • Underwrite the conference finances
  • Sponsor keynote speakers
  • Administer the conference (bookings, rooms)
  • Publish Proceedings

We have full-time Conference staff who have a proven track record of organising conferences from 40 to 200 delegates. If you are interested in arranging a conference or wish to suggest a conference topic please contact Lizzi Lake, Conference Officer at the IMA.

Why get the IMA to run your Conference?

So it’s finally decided: BURPS ’14 will be run as a 3-day residential conference ‘on campus’ at the University of Edchester in the Autumn.

The Mathematics Department is abuzz with excitement. Who will the conference committee chair be? Will the Conference Banquet be at that pole-dancing club again? Will Professor Bibulous from Toper University drink too much and disgrace himself for the third time running? Who will create the conference budget and run all the finances? How awkward will the Edchester University Conference Office be this time? Who will manage the call for papers and delegate registration? Who will process and collate all the selected abstracts and get a Conference Digest Printed? Who will manage publicity, create a conference web site and keep the web pages up to date? Who will send formal invitations to all the invited speakers? Who will arrange the accommodation and catering facilities for all the delegates? Who will book all the necessary lecture theatres and audio-visual facilities? More importantly, how many organising committee members’ marriages will be ruined by the extra work that running such a prestigious international conference will inevitably entail?

Actually, there is an alternative. Instead of doing all the administration, documentation and financial work yourself, leaving your poor students to revise for their exams alone and feigning amazement when your long-suffering partner appears less than enthusiastic about coming on the “conference trip” to the local Science Park to witness the enthralling history of adding machines – why not arrange for the IMA to manage all the ‘domestic stuff’ leaving you to concentrate on setting up the scientific programme schedule, selecting the conference abstracts and choosing those world-class international keynote speakers.

As a professional and learned society the IMA organises 8 to 10 residential, campus-based conferences each year throughout the UK, to promote and advance the understanding of Mathematics and its Applications. Whilst some conference themes have become regular biennial or triennial events such as Mathematics of Surfaces, or Cryptography and Coding, many popular new subject areas are emerging such as Vision, Video and Graphics, Modelling in the Management of Healthcare and The Use and Control of Chaos. The IMA supports and encourages conference development in all such areas.

So what exactly can the IMA do for you? Of course, you will still need to have your own Scientific Committee to structure and organise the Science part of the conference and to peer review the abstracts. Apart from this, though, the IMA can work in collaboration with you and your scientific committee to plan, budget for and run your conference. In summary the IMA can:

  • Set up and maintain conference web pages and issue the call for papers
  • Set reasonable conference fees and underwrite the conference finances
  • Sponsor your invited keynote speakers from the UK, Europe and RoW
  • Arrange all necessary room hire, lecture theatre(s) and audio visual facilities
  • Administer the conference (registration, invoicing, catering, accommodation)
  • Distribute travel information and joining instructions to all delegates
  • Create a Pre-Conference Digest and/or Publish Post-Conference Proceedings
  • Host the conference in a nearby University or campus
  • Set up a help-desk on-site with IMA staff ‘to hand’ throughout the conference
  • Administer settlement of all invoices and expenses after the conference
  • Publish a conference report in the IMA members’ publication Mathematics Today

In short, arranging for the IMA to run your conference leaves you to get on with the bit that you’re probably most interested in namely, the selection and presentation of peer reviewed papers across the whole spectrum of study and application by delegates at all levels of knowledge and expertise including research students, seasoned practitioners, researchers and world-class authorities in the chosen field.

The IMA has a full-time Conference Department with a proven track record of organising successful conferences ranging in size from 40 to 200 delegates and from one to five days in duration. IMA Conferences are typically run at selected UK Universities with delegates ‘on campus’ during the Summer, Easter/Spring and Christmas vacations. They therefore offer a combination of pleasant surroundings, professional conference facilities and reasonably priced student accommodation and catering provision for all delegates and invited speakers, with no financial risks for you or the organising committee to deal with.

As a business-aware person, you are probably wondering where the catch is. What do the IMA get out of this and how will it affect the finances of the conference that you want to run? The IMA’s position on this is clear: The objective is to run 8-10 conferences per annum on an overall cost-neutral basis. Actually it doesn’t normally work out that way, as the IMA rarely manages to completely cover its costs and overheads. Typically the IMA ends up subsidising each conference by a small amount, but since this is a service that is provided “for the good of Mathematics and the Mathematics Community as a whole” (rather than as a profit-making activity) the official IMA position is that this is not a problem.

As far as budgeting is concerned, the IMA will suggest a set conference fee per-delegate for their services. The fee structure proposed will depend on the duration of the conference and is clearly set out in The IMA Guide to Conference Organisers made available to all organising committees once the basic agreement is established. Then the variable costs such as accommodation, catering and room hire will be factored in, the number of delegates expected will be used to set the accommodation charges per capita and then an overall conference price table will be derived for publication on the web site and inclusion on the IMA registration and application forms. A three-tiered conference fee pricing structure is applied such that students pay the lowest fees, IMA Members pay a reduced fee and non-IMA Members pay the full fee. (But see note below for discounted membership application opportunity). Keynote invited speakers are of course charged no fees, receive free accommodation and catering and are offered a generous travel allowance at one of three levels according to whether they have to travel from within the UK, from Europe or from further abroad, covering the rest of the world. The long experience that the IMA Conference Department brings with it means that efficiency gains are certain compared to managing it all yourself, so that the IMA conference fee charged is relatively low and results in overall charges per capita that are very reasonable. It’s also normally possible for the IMA to arrange some additional external industrial sponsorship or other third-party funding such that attendance costs can be kept to a minimum for delegates without independent means (such as PhD students).

In case you’re still not sure that you might want the IMA to have a role to play in your conference, here’s one final, more strategic thought: the UK research community is about to move into the brave new world of FEC (Full Economic Costing of research). The chronic “overtrading” that has made stressed-out workaholic wrecks out of so many academics has, for the first time in many years, some prospect of ending. Bearing this all in mind, when you organise BURPS ’14 which do you think will be the most professional course of action?

a) Try to keep costs down to an absolute minimum for your delegates. Organise and manage everything yourself. Make the tea and coffee using your own kettle and save on campus staff costs by running a late bar yourself every night. Organise the conference secretariat from your front room at home and type and photocopy all the Proceedings yourself. They’ll be so grateful to have saved maybe thirty quid that they’ll come and visit you after your nervous breakdown.

b) Involve the IMA. Your delegates may pay slightly more in conference fees (though PhD students probably won’t) but you will get a professionally-run, stress-free conference as a result. Your most pressing duties will be to decide on the conference programme schedule, arrange for the abstracts to be reviewed, select and establish the availability of suitable keynote speakers and decide who joins you at the top table for the banquet.

If you are interested in inviting the IMA to run your next mathematical conference or wish to suggest a conference topic then please contact Lizzi Lake, IMA Conference Officer at

Written for and on behalf of the IMA by
Professor Alistair Fitt, CMath, FIMA
Chair of the IMA Conference Programme Committee

IMA Conferences Explained

In case you didn’t know, the IMA runs conferences. This activity has been going on for many years: for example, if you idly Google ‘IMA conferences 1980’ then the first search result tells you that the IMA ran a conference on Control Theory at Sheffield University way back in September 1980 – and that was the third in a series! The amount of conferences that the IMA runs varies from year to year – a good year might see 12 taking place, but in a less successful year perhaps only 6 will run. Like research grant income, it’s normally lumpy.

The plan for IMA conferences is simple: if you are interested in running a conference with the IMA we will provide an experienced and professional service that will take care of all the arrangements for you. The Scientific Committee of course is your affair – the IMA will not interfere in any of the scientific decisions that you make, and freed of the cares of the many jobs that have to be done to make a conference run successfully, you should be able to devote all of your energies to the technical substance of the meeting.

How do we want to run conferences in the future? At our recent IMA strategy review, conferences were considered in detail. In particular, the finance committee had expressed concerns that conferences should be run on a sound financial basis. As a result of this, I was asked to convene a ‘conference strategy group’ that could discuss all of the relevant issues. The group duly met, and many of the main issues were soon identified. In particular, though financial performance is normally broadly neutral when evaluated purely on a simple ‘money in, money out’ basis, the picture is very different when any sort of FEC (Full Economic Costing) model is used – for all such models show that the IMA essentially runs conferences at a loss. It was finally resolved that I should produce a position paper for the November meeting of Council, which both invited further discussion and made some firm proposals for conference strategy going forward. The end result of the Council meeting was that the following strategic principles for conferences were established:

  • A Conferences Committee should be set up to oversee the IMA’s conference operation.
  • The IMA should continue to run conferences partly as a service to the community. It should not run conferences solely as a source of revenue, but neither should it support such events at a loss, as the consequent drain of funds is unlikely to be sustainable. There is nothing to stop some conferences being run just to make money, of course.
  • The current modus operandi of running conferences involves risk, but this should continue. The IMA shoulders most of the risk that a conference might lose money, but also takes some of the profits if a conference is a success.
  • For future conferences the Chair of the Organising Committee should normally be an IMA member.
  • One way of being clearer about financial responsibility is to require an agreed ‘basis for costing’ according to guidelines that are clearly laid out in the ‘Guide to Conference Organisers’. This guide has now been changed to make things clearer.
  • In terms of cost recovery, four different types of conference have now been identified, each with different funding models.
    These are:

(a) ‘Subsidised’ (Conferences such as the IMA Mathematics 2012 and Early Career Mathematician series that the IMA is prepared to run at a loss for the benefit of the community);
(b) ‘Academic’ (Conferences that would be run on a partial FEC basis);
(c) ‘Academic/Industrial’ (Conferences that would be run on a neutral FEC basis);
(d) ‘Industrial’ (Conferences that are run to generate a surplus above FEC).

  • In each conference season, the conference committee will classify each proposed conference into one of four types, as described above. The mix will be carefully considered in order to ensure a suitable distribution of different types of conference.
  • An FEC-type ‘profit and loss’ conference report will be given at each year end that reflects the real operating cost of the conference activity but excludes overheads. One-off costs such as database and website development will no longer be considered as part of the overhead to which conferences are expected to contribute.
  • Effort will be put into commissioning strategic ideas for conferences. Buy-in from the academics suggesting a conference theme is essential; it must be one which they would choose to attend. EPSRC strategic themes could strongly influence the programme and advisors could be sought to help identify conference topics.
  • The conferences committee will also consider other ideas for pure cash generation – for example, at some time in the future we could engage people to run CPD courses at a profit as the RSS and ORS do.

The newly-constituted Conference Committee whose purpose is to oversee the whole conference operation had its first meeting in March and began its work of having strategic oversight of the conference programme. The future success or otherwise of the Committee will be easy to judge, and it will stand or fall by the conference programme that it is able to mount, and whether or not the financial results that are alluded to above can be achieved.

Now for the more controversial bit: it would be hiding the truth to say that IMA conferences are never criticised. David Youdan and others (I am not exempt) have all taken their fair share of flak over various issues arising from the IMA conference programme. The vast majority of conferences over the last ten years have been huge successes though, and many of the complaints that we hear from the community in general have very little real justification. In an attempt to explain some of the issues, let me address some of the worries that we hear most often:

‘The IMA are profiteering – they make vast sums of money out of their conferences which bankrolls the whole organisation!’
That’s not the case. Council’s strategy is very clear on this matter. It costs the IMA significant sums to retain a conference facility, both in direct costs such as salary and indirect costs such as overheads. Our current strategy dictates that the IMA attempts to recover a small fraction of the Full Economic Costs of the conference capability by running appropriate conferences at a surplus, but does not seek to cover all of its costs. Put another way, if the IMA stopped running conferences it would (in ‘bottom line’ terms) be slightly better off. To be more exact, Finance Committee has approved a subsidy of £40K per annum (calculated on a rolling average basis to damp out the noise).

‘I could run it cheaper if I did it myself!’
That’s definitely true.You could make the tea and provide the meals much cheaper with a bit of home cooking. If you booked the rooms, stapled the programmes, stuffed the wallets and dealt with all the conference fees you could really save a lot of money. That way the conference fee would be less. If that appeals to you then nobody is stopping you. My only observation is that when I ask academics what they do during their day, they list things like writing REF papers, supervising PhD students, giving inspiring lectures and fondly remembering EPSRC Post-Doctoral Fellowships. They never really mention washing up, baking or photocopying. But if that’s what your university expects you to be doing for your salary then fine.

‘Previous IMA conferences have been a disaster – it took months to finally settle the finances!’
This happened to me in 1986. It was terrible. ‘Never again!’ I vowed.No honest appraisal of IMA conferenceswould fail to admit that some of the early meetings did not go as planned, and a few organiserswere unhappy. But thatwas 25 years ago when I was young and probably you were too. Times have changed, the IMA has significantly sharpened up its conferences act, and its recent record of conference success speaks for itself.

‘They’re like the bankers – if the conference makes money they take all the profit!’
The latter is true; for the deal is that any conference surplus goes to the IMA. The former is not true though, for should there be a loss then the IMA alone (and no taxpayer!) bears the loss. If you have ever organised a conference then I wager that you will agree that free underwriting of the whole affair is a very valuable commodity.

‘The finances are a black art and the IMA holds all the aces!’
All the finances are agreed in advance using a very clear and transparent spreadsheet. It’s very easy to see how many invited speakers you can afford if the fee is set at a certain level, and how fixing the fees for different types of delegate (Non-IMA member, PhD student etc.) influences the remainder of the spending plans for the conference. As conference organiser, all the financial information that you need to know is at your fingertips at all times.

Finally, one thing that we urgently need is good suggestions for future conferences to run. So please do approach us ( if either you know of an area where a conference might be popular or of course if you want the IMA to run a conference for you. Ideas concerning good ‘industrial’ type conferences that we could run would be particularly gratefully received. Above all, please try to support the IMA conference activity and see it for what it is: a chance to have access to a professional and convenient way of running a conference that is sustainable for the IMA.

Mathematics Today June 2012

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