A few thoughts after the first two full conference days of the IBC 2017. (Sunday was only the opening and a few public events, and today Wednesday is a bit of a break without symposia).
Shenzhen has really pulled out all the stops to host the conference. It is huge, it has a huge presence in the city, and everything is well organised. The city itself is also a good location. I am not personally a fan of skyscrapers, but of course only a large city like this has the infrastructure for a congress of more than 6,000 delegates. The subway system in particular is amazing.
What I am less convinced of at the moment is the way the scientific program has been organised. In what is apparently custom for IBCs, all the symposia were set in advance, and for each symposium the organisers were required to arrange four set talks and fill the remaining two slots competitively from non-invited submissions.
I find that unfortunate. Why not set perhaps half the symposia, call for free submissions, and then group all the latter thematically into additional symposia? If you get twelve talk submissions for palaeobotany, for example, simply arrange for one of the more accomplished speakers to chair the whole thing. I have not yet heard an argument against such an approach beyond "but that means that they would have less time to organise the symposia", but other meetings do not seem to have any problems with it, from what I hear even very large ones.
I have also heard from many others, and observe myself, that there are too many parallel symposia, and often symposia that would clearly attract the same clientèle are placed in parallel to each other. One of the reasons this happens to such a high degree is that only a small part of the day - four hours in the afternoon and, again, even excluding today - is reserved for the general symposia, while the entire morning is given to keynotes and plenaries.
Now I may be in the minority here, but I am not to be counted among those who primarily go to a conference to hear a famous person give a keynote lecture. At their best they are the oral presentation equivalent of review papers, but I see the benefit of meetings mostly in networking and learning about new results and methods, the oral presentation equivalent of research papers. And for this the general symposia are the places to be. I am consequently wondering if it would not be more productive to increase current symposium time slots by 50% and to cut the number of keynotes and plenaries in half. This would also mean that less symposia would have to run in parallel.
Overall I have seen some very amazing talks, but also some that appeared a bit uninspiring and could have benefited from a more explicit explanation of what the research question even was and why the audience should care. I have heard of software that I should look into and learned about tools that have become more powerful since I last tried them, but also groaned about "paraphyletic individuals" and the assumption that the traits of the smaller of two clades automatically represent the ancestral states. And of course I have met colleagues from overseas who in many cases I haven't seen since the last IBC in 2011.
Now I just have got to get my own talk down from a rambling 25 min to 15-20 and all will be good...