This is a guest post from Paul Beame, the chair of the SIGACT executive committee.
First of all, I would like to express the desire of the SIGACT leadership to work for the benefit of the whole TCS community including SoCG. We are trying to bring the TCS community together more, as in the proposed 2016 co-location of SoCG with STOC but also more generally. At the STOC business meeting there was also strong support for a Federation of TCS conferences in 2017 where we would try to co-locate many more theory conferences with STOC in the latter half of June. We’d love it if SoCG wanted to join in 2017 also but also understand that SoCG is expected to be outside North America in 2017. Obviously, with this perspective, we hope that SoCG stays with SIGACT and ACM.
I should explain more about finances. ACM provides a substantial net financial benefit to the TCS community. SIGACT gets money from ACM for its share of the digital library revenues based on downloads of SIGACT material. Over the years, from a combination largely of STOC surpluses and ACM DL revenues, SIGACT has built up quite a large operating balance as well as a separate endowment fund for awards. We do expect DL revenues to decline markedly as things become more open access, which has led to conservative budgeting of SIGACT funds. (2/3 of revenues are from papers older than 5 years, often from conferences that are now sponsored by other SIGs, and a move to delayed open access might wipe out all of that revenue stream overnight.) However, in the last year, SIGACT got $39K more from ACM from the DL than it paid to ACM in allocation fees for its own operations and passed on overheads of its conferences. This isn’t all available: SIGACT does lose money on every member because it costs more to print and mail SIGACT News than an average membership costs, a net loss of $14K overall, though there is now an electronic-only option that may make this break-even on average. STOC also made a total of over $110K in surpluses the last two years (we don’t have a 50% surplus return agreement for STOC as we do with SoCG). For several years SIGACT had an operating fund balance of around $800K but these two items have caused a very significant jump to well over $900K.) The SIGACT leadership are trying to return much of that extra money to the community both to STOC and other conferences. This year’s money to conferences, of which $4500 went to SoCG, was a start. We don’t want conferences to count on this, or make promises that we can’t keep in future which is why there are no commitments at this point. Leaving ACM would cut off SoCG from this money.
A bit more detail about in cooperation requests. SoCG would have to ask each year, but the bar for SIGACT support for this will be low for conferences outside North America. (After all SIGACT has committed to pay for extra costs in this case so it is reasonable that SIGACT get asked each time.) The bar for approval of this inside North America, especially in the US, would be very high. (Having seen how things worked with ACM when I ran local arrangements for STOC 2006 in Seattle, it really couldn’t have been easier. All I had to do was tell an ACM person to pay some bill and it got done; I didn’t have to handle a penny and their advice saved the conference a bunch of money. They negotiated some really good rates for us and some good stipulations in the contract that would have been a mess for us if they hadn’t been included.)
There are benefits of ACM policies for sponsored conferences that SoCG would be foregoing when it elects to operate in cooperation rather than with sponsored status. Just one example is the following. ACM has an arrangement with RegOnline (the usual registration service for many conferences) that halves the costs (I can attest to this having paid for them at regular price for FOCS conferences) and sends the money direct to an ACM sub-account for the conference. Expenses are paid by ACM staff as authorized by the organizers. This means that organizers do not set up bank accounts and reporting is easy (no final auditing or anything for the local organizers, something that would be necessary for a non-profit to do for tax purposes).
Contingencies required in budgets for ACM should not be an issue here. Even without changing the number of attendees, it is easy to meet contingencies by adjusting the assumed distribution of registrants to include a higher percentage of non-members or late registrants, or a smaller percentage of students to compensate for much or all of the contingency. It is also possible to approve budgets with lower contingency percentages for conferences that consistently have budgeted well. Contingency is sometimes necessary, though. I did have one case when I ran IEEE FOCS 2010 where with a fudged contingency we would have had a deficit except that SIGACT stepped in to help. Cutting things close works fine if you have an organization with deeper pockets backing you up. An independent conference could not cut it so close with the contingency and would need to build in a real contingency that is quite a bit larger than what actually one can budget for ACM.
Finally, the situation with SoCG and ACM is very different from that of CCC and IEEE, particularly in terms of the cost versus support for the conference. Moreover, unlike with CCC, SoCG leaving ACM would eliminate the possibility of future “in cooperation” status with ACM, something that the members of the CCC steering committee are very keen on maintaining. I hope that SoCG wants to maintain our relationship, too.