Who are research software engineers?

Research relies on software experts

By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director, Software Sustainability Institute.

Most research would be impossible without software, and this reliance is forcing a rethink of the skills needed in a traditional research group. A survey of 15 Russell Group universities found that 92% of researchers used research software, 67% reported that it was fundamental to their research, and 56% said they developed their own software.

With the emergence of software as the pre-eminent research tool used across all disciplines, comes the realisation that a significant majority of results are based, ultimately, on the skill of the experts who design and build it. Since 2012, a community of these experts has grown around a campaign to raise awareness of the people who build the software used in research. These people have worked under many titles, but many now identify as Research Software Engineers.

The most popular software packages used in research are all, broadly speaking, programming languages. These allow researchers to develop their own programs to solve problems specific to their research. Some of these programs develop into substantial software packages with millions of lines of code, but to concentrate only on these headline-grabbing examples is to overlook the ubiquity of software in research. Millions of pro­grams are used by researchers to analyse and transform their data. These are the real workhorses of research, and without them the vast majority of results could not be produced. Who writes these programs if there is no career path for a software expert in academia?

The established approach to recruiting software expertise is a hotch­potch of different solutions that have been developed to meet the disparate needs of local human resources and finance depart­ments, university culture and restrictions from funders. This lack of consistency has created an unrecognised and tenuous exist­ence for the people who develop software in academia, and this severely limits the number of people who can help researchers benefit from software.

Since 2013, the UK has led the world in recognising the importance of research software engineering. This has been the result of a grass-roots campaign, initiated and still supported by the Software Sustainability Institue (SSI), but since coordinated by the research software engineering community itself. The campaign has witnessed the rapid growth of an active community of over 1100 Research Software Engineers – a success which is being emulated from Australia to the US. It has seen the proliferation of a new type of group which pools software expertise across a university so that researchers can hire experts when they need them. It is a campaign that it backed by a growing number of research funders – for example, the EPSRC which invested millions into an RSE Fellowship – and hope that providing access to software experts will improve the reliability, reproducibility and reusability of the software used in research.

The RSE Conference was founded in 2016 to help the rapidly growing community coalesce. The first conference brought together 202 RSEs from 16 different countries, the second conference repeated this success and sold out the conference venue, and the third – this year’s conference – aims to double attendance. If you use software in research and want to talk about your work, then the RSE Conference is a great way to enter the community. If you like what you see, you can join the UK RSE Association .

Our grassroots community has achieved a number of successes, but there is much work still to be done. We must convince all research stakeholders of the vital link between reliable software and reliable results, and we must provide robust careers for RSEs and we must continue to make an RSE service available across all academic organisations. By providing the expertise needed by modern research groups, we will promote the development of well-engineered software that will increase the scope, productivity and reliability of research.

 

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