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[This post is collectively authored by the ICM structure committee, whose membership includes myself, and is listed in full in the post below – T.]

The International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) is widely considered to be the premier conference for mathematicians.  It is held every four years; for instance, the 2018 ICM was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the 2022 ICM is to be held in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  The most high-profile event at the ICM is the awarding of the 10 or so prizes of the International Mathematical Union (IMU) such as the Fields Medal, and the lectures by the prize laureates; but there are also approximately twenty plenary lectures from leading experts across all mathematical disciplines, several public lectures of a less technical nature, about 180 more specialised invited lectures divided into about twenty section panels, each corresponding to a mathematical field (or range of fields), as well as various outreach and social activities, exhibits and satellite programs, and meetings of the IMU General Assembly; see for instance the program for the 2018 ICM for a sample schedule.  In addition to these official events, the ICM also provides more informal networking opportunities, in particular allowing mathematicians at all stages of career, and from all backgrounds and nationalities, to interact with each other.

For each Congress, a Program Committee (together with subcommittees for each section) is entrusted with the task of selecting who will give the lectures of the ICM (excluding the lectures by prize laureates, which are selected by separate prize committees); they also have decided how to appropriately subdivide the entire field of mathematics into sections.   Given the prestigious nature of invitations from the ICM to present a lecture, this has been an important and challenging task, but one for which past Program Committees have managed to fulfill in a largely satisfactory fashion.

Nevertheless, in the last few years there has been substantial discussion regarding ways in which the process for structuring the ICM and inviting lecturers could be further improved, for instance to reflect the fact that the distribution of mathematics across various fields has evolved over time.   At the 2018 ICM General Assembly meeting in Rio de Janeiro, a resolution was adopted to create a new Structure Committee to take on some of the responsibilities previously delegated to the Program Committee, focusing specifically on the structure of the scientific program.  On the other hand, the Structure Committee is not involved with the format for prize lectures, the selection of prize laureates, or the selection of plenary and sectional lecturers; these tasks are instead the responsibilities of other committees (the local Organizing Committee, the prize committees, and the Program Committee respectively).

The first Structure Committee was constituted on 1 Jan 2019, with the following members:

As one of our first actions, we on the committee are using this blog post to solicit input from the mathematical community regarding the topics within our remit.  Among the specific questions (in no particular order) for which we seek comments are the following:

  1. Are there suggestions to change the format of the ICM that would increase its value to the mathematical community?
  2. Are there suggestions to change the format of the ICM that would encourage greater participation and interest in attending, particularly with regards to junior researchers and mathematicians from developing countries?
  3. What is the correct balance between research and exposition in the lectures?  For instance, how strongly should one emphasize the importance of good exposition when selecting plenary and sectional speakers?  Should there be “Bourbaki style” expository talks presenting work not necessarily authored by the speaker?
  4. Is the balance between plenary talks, sectional talks, and public talks at an optimal level?  There is only a finite amount of space in the calendar, so any increase in the number or length of one of these types of talks will come at the expense of another.
  5. The ICM is generally perceived to be more important to pure mathematics than to applied mathematics.  In what ways can the ICM be made more relevant and attractive to applied mathematicians, or should one not try to do so?
  6. Are there structural barriers that cause certain areas or styles of mathematics (such as applied or interdisciplinary mathematics) or certain groups of mathematicians to be under-represented at the ICM?  What, if anything, can be done to mitigate these barriers?

Of course, we do not expect these complex and difficult questions to be resolved within this blog post, and debating these and other issues would likely be a major component of our internal committee discussions.  Nevertheless, we would value constructive comments towards the above questions (or on other topics within the scope of our committee) to help inform these subsequent discussions.  We therefore welcome and invite such commentary, either as responses to this blog post, or sent privately to one of the members of our committee.  We would also be interested in having readers share their personal experiences at past congresses, and how it compares with other major conferences of this type.   (But in order to keep the discussion focused and constructive, we request that comments here refrain from discussing topics that are out of the scope of this committee, such as suggesting specific potential speakers for the next congress, which is a task instead for the 2022 ICM Program Committee.)

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