CanSAS 2023 – where are we going?

I have just returned from the 2023 CanSAS meeting in Grenoble, and I have… opinions, both positive and negative ones. Read on for my take on the thing.

Firstly, it is nice to be out physically at a conference once more, especially if it is but a 12h train ride away (yours truly travelling in the picture on the left). Grenoble was great and very enjoyable this time of year, with climate change making it uncharacteristically warm this October. The city seems to have grown tremendously since my Hercules days 15-odd years ago, and is now a rather hip town with a very lively student population. Great food can be had in many places, although it is harder to find anything that doesn’t have cheese in it for some reason… They seem to be rather fond of it!

CanSAS meetings have been around for many years now (on a roughly bi- or tri-annual basis), bringing together the scattering specialists and those interested in going to great depths to illuminate the dark (occasionally esoteric) corners of the technique. I myself have been to several of these meetings, in particular those in Tokai (Japan), and California (US), and perhaps one or two more in various other locations over the years.

But, it seemed to me, there were precious few new faces in the crowd this time. The scene was dominated by the old hands (yet again). With so few young permanent scientists coming in to continue the work of those who are on their way out, are we as method specialists perhaps facing extinction? With nothing but black box instruments and an AI interface to help the poor soul looking to add some scattering goodness to their materials science?

One explanation for this observation is that the influx is still there, but that CanSAS has turned into a cabal, with little appeal to, or advertising aimed at, those “outsiders” we need to welcome. A sort of insider circle of friends happy to jet around the world every two years for a little get-together… It does feel like that sometimes.

The statistics on the last few large SAS meetings, however, *also* showed a dwindling attendance of the larger community, which supports the first hypothesis that we are facing the more systemic issue of a dwindling workforce. If so, it definitely doesn’t hurt to become more attractive to early-career researchers as the field has plenty many more in-depth topics to cover. I mean, I am plenty attractive just by myself, but even my gravitational field has its limits; we need universal attraction.

The CanSAS workshop was full of interesting talks, but too many presentations compared to the available time (0.5-1-0.5 days is too short for anything productive if most of these days are full of rather long talks). I also have to reiterate my usual gripe: coffee breaks are far too few and far too short. These coffee breaks is exactly where the real action happens, at least for me. In my dream world, I envision a conference with 1-minute talks for everyone, followed by many, many small discussion groups over nice coffee, sandwiches and cake for the rest of the days. Whip out a laptop or two to get some pair programming in and you’re golden.

At this CanSAS meeting, there were also two blocks reserved for some plenary discussions, but I find this format to be not useful. In plenary discussions, a few of the more forward and comfortable people speak up, while the more modest lean back or sneak out (also some of the immodest ones in this particula case) for small-group discussions elsewhere. These plenary discussions can better be recast into tiny working groups – break out sessions on a singular topic, to discuss or do something small, and report back a while later. Much more effective for actually getting things done, which was the whole point of CanSAS if I’m not mistaken.

The arranged accommodation in the ILL guest house on site was a big plus though (see the view from my window in the picture on the left). This saves a lot of headaches and premature disbanding of interesting discussion groups when the evening approaches, and allows groups to travel (and discuss) together in packs for much longer, also over breakfast. It is a very good way to get to know more people. Especially if you are then whisked away in an evacuation for a fake bomb threat during breakfast as happened to us on Thursday!

Given the brevity of the CanSAS workshop and the desire to get some more collaboration going, I and quite a few others decided to extend our stay by a day or two longer. This was a very good choice as this was an excellent opportunity to have more in-depth meetings with a few others. These others included friends from other beam lines, contacts at manufacturers, and more than a few conference stragglers. For me, this was perhaps even more useful than the actual canSAS meeting: we made plans and action items for outreach activities, highlighted outstanding issues, discussed in-depth about such things as lab automation setups and upcoming developments, all in an enjoyable, unhurried atmosphere. This was the secret underground CanSAS meeting. The real one.