In this contributed Q&A, ISC’s Nages Sieslack interviews Martin Meuer and Thomas Meuer, managing directors of the ISC Group, about the diversity initiatives and goals that were introduced this year. The event group is putting in a serious effort to increase participation of women and other under-presented groups at its annual conference, the next iteration of which takes place June 18-22, in Frankfurt, Germany.
What Does Diversity Mean to the ISC High Performance Conference?
Thomas Meuer: Diversity is multifaceted. In the context of a conference, the term can refer to speakers, participants or exhibitors and also include aspects such as age, gender, culture or geographical origin, sexual orientation, and more. But also a balance in attendance from industry and academia reflects diversity, as well as the program composition.
Martin Meuer: We do strive to address many of the above-mentioned facets and players in the community, but of course we also realize that we can only directly influence aspects under our purview. We can and are, for example, ensuring a greater gender balance in the appointment of ISC chairs, session chairs and speakers. Likewise we are also striving to compile a
diverse program that we believe have an appeal to the HPC and AI communities. We have started ensuring that the ISC exhibition offers all the important components of HPC. This year we shall also have businesses like Amazon, Google and Baidu exhibiting at the show.
Why is diversity important to a technical conference?
Martin Meuer: A technical conference is basically a large user group meeting that brings together different players, be it the people driving businesses or researchers that advance technologies. If a certain segment wouldn’t be at the industry conference, their contribution will be missed, which has consequences for the development of the community and vice-versa.
Imagine the Chinese or Japanese HPC community not attending ISC – that would adversely affect the knowledge sharing and collaboration on international exascale initiatives. Or the women in this field not actively being present at any HPC conferences – female researchers would lose representation at community gatherings.
As we see it, there is no doubt whatsoever that technical communities like the HPC community greatly benefit from having topics viewed and reviewed from different perspectives. There is ample research and published studies that shows that diversity breeds innovation, attracts talent, helps businesses perform better, and it also provides a stronger sense of a community.
Did diversity grow organically at ISC or is it a recent effort?
Thomas Meuer: We have always aimed for a balance in the conference program, mostly with regard to the geographical origin of the speakers. Over the last 30 years, we have welcomed attendees from over 80 countries.
There is still a great potential in improving female researchers’, scientists’ and business leaders’ representation at ISC. Women generally remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce, including HPC. This is apparent from our published data where only 10 to 15 percent of past attendees are women. We wanted to change that in 2017, but not in baby steps. We engaged in many meetings with Toni Collis, the director of the Women in HPC (WHPC), and thanks to her support and guidance, we were able to introduce specific goals, which are now published online.
How is diversity reflected in the 2017 conference?
Martin Meuer: First of all we have introduced a compliance program and our goal is to fill 25 percent of the committee chairs, deputy chairs and session chairs’ positions with women. The following step was to urge individual session chairs to invite at least one-third female experts as speakers. This was a tough call for most session chairs. In some areas, for example in industrial HPC topics, it is almost impossible to find female speakers to address particular topics that are important to the B2B manufacturing industry.
However we are very pleased to introduce three distinguished female researchers to address the topics of data network and data analytics this year. For those who missed our announcement, this year’s conference keynote will be delivered by data scientist Dr. Jennifer Tour Chayes from Microsoft Research.
To encourage greater diversity in the research program, we established the double-blind review process to handle the following submissions: research papers, research posters and the PhD forum.
Finally we are bringing in the deep learning community to ISC by integrating a new program element – the Deep Learning Day on Wednesday, June 21. This program will enable HPC practitioners, the deep learning community, and the user community to engage with each other.
In light of the travel restrictions the US government has attempted to impose on certain countries, do you anticipate any impact on the ISC conference?
Thomas Meuer: We don’t wish to speculate on external facts, but we can tell you that we have received a record high number of submissions in our BoF and tutorials sessions. Maybe this is an indication that we will reach a new ISC attendance record.
However we have been hearing from a number of trusted partners in the US that they might increase their attendance at HPC conferences outside the country if travel restrictions impede their ability to meet and collaborate with foreign experts at US-based events.
Here let me take this interview as an opportunity to urge all groups within the HPC community to make use of the ISC platform. Get in touch with our chairs or us directly to recommend methods, or even programs to promote diversity.