Delivering the UK XFEL Launch Event
13 Apr 2023







The Royal Society has a rich history of promoting scientific knowledge and discovery. This made it the perfect venue to launch our UK XFEL project, not only into the X-Ray Free Electron Laser (XFEL) community but into a wider scientific arena.

A behind-the-scenes look at the UK XFEL launch event
The UK XFEL project is a conceptual design study that explores various options and possibilities to deliver access to a next-generation XFEL (X-ray Free-Electron Laser) to scientists across the United Kingdom. An essential aspect of this project, which will run from October 2022 to October 2025, is stakeholder engagement. We must ensure that the options considered will meet the needs of both scientists and industrial users and that any resulting facility is utilised to its full potential. 

Launching UK-XFEL

The launch event itself was a roaring success, with 150 people attending in person, another 150 attending online, and some people even wandering in off the street to see what all the excitement was about. Initially, I planned on writing an article detailing the discussions and findings of the various sessions, but with professional journalists and science writers in attendance (Physics World, Chemistry World) I have decided to leave that to them and instead focus on the behind-the-scenes aspect of what it takes to put an event like this on and why we do it.

Firstly, we need to define our goals, what are we trying to achieve? Who should be the target audience? What tone are we trying to set? Luckily for us, this was the easy bit.

This project, which is ultimately aiming to answer the question of ‘how to deliver next-generation XFEL access to UK users’, requires us to understand what users want and what they need, and then figure out what they’ll need in 15 years' time. The answer to this last question is the trickiest and requires some amount of flexibility, futureproofing, extrapolating, and crystal balling. Whereas the key to answering the first question lies in engaging with stakeholders at all levels. Rather nicely, our goals for an event like this are laid out right within the project structure: namely community engagement to both promote XFELs, engage with the current community, grow the community, and define what it is that community needs.

This overarching goal cannot simply be achieved in one launch event, so we are planning a number of workshops, surveys, town halls, and conferences over the coming years. But, to kick this community engagement off, we wanted an event which was somewhere easy to get to for our international partners, easy to get to for our UK collaborators, provided a neutral location, and would lend gravitas to the project. As such, the Royal Society was selected as the first host location (our next event will be more focused on discussions around specific areas of XFEL use and will take place in Belfast on 20 June 2023).

We started planning the event back in October as part of our community engagement work for the project, simply with the outline of an idea to bring people together to share lessons learnt and network around the project. The first step of any such event is to set an agenda, arrange with the speakers, and set a date. Juggling all these balls at once can be a tricky business, but the team managed to secure the speakers and set a date that they could all attend! We had opted to split the day roughly in three, with the morning session being focused on XFEL Science, the afternoon session being on facility design and, sandwiched between these, talks from both EU-XFEL and LCLS. EU-XFEL and LCLS are two facilities currently in operation, able to provide valuable insight into their operations, commissioning, and design aspects. Theming the day like this allowed us to place speakers into similarly grouped seminars, creating more cohesion across talks.​

To help broaden the reach of XFELs, a range of speakers across disciplines was assembled, from protein folding to material properties in stars, to talk about their work and what opportunities a next-generation XFEL source could open up. To ensure the audience was also familiar with the project, the design work to date, and the direction we’ve started to work towards, we also included some of our own team to talk. Once the date was set, all the invited speakers had agreed to talk, and the venue was booked, we had to start organising the travel, food, hotels, name badges, displays, banners, posters, and much more. Ahead of the event we also wanted to ensure that the website​ was ready, an update brochure was produced, and a mailing list​ was set up. All this work was supported by a lengthy list of amazing staff; Erica Bradshaw, Tracey Burge, Kerry Barnes, Mike Dovey, Gassan Ahmad, Jake Hepburn, Laura Bennett, Andy Collins, and Ewan McEvilley (to name but a few). Some of them also travelled down on the day to support organising people, doing interviews, managing the audio-visual equipment, taking photos, and eating biscuits.

Preparing for the unexpected is always a key aspect of managing any project, this time however it was not the Spanish Inquisition, but the Royal Society’s small print that brought unexpected issues. At the eleventh hour we spotted that, despite our agenda running until 17:30, the Royal Society required we vacate the premises by 17:00. It was an oversight to be sure, but one we could work around. Other than this frustrating blow, which squeezed time from lunch and the in-house speakers, the day went without any other major incidents. Additionally, we were able to organise a second day’s talks, specifically for more technical discussions. This enabled the facility design team to gain valuable insight into the more nuanced machine parameters, taking advantage of them being in the same location as several other world experts.

Organizing an event like this can be a daunting task, but it’s also worth the payoff. Helping move the XFEL community forward by creating an exciting opportunity to bring people together is the icing on the cake for what was ultimately a successful launch. 

Now onto the difficult bit – the delivery of the project itself!

Written by Paul Aden.