Simon Hettrick

ResearchFishBy Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

Researchfish® allows researchers to record the impact of their research outside of the standard metric of how many papers I have written. These outcomes, as they are called, cover publications, but also collaborations, events, awards and other metrics including - and of most interest to me - software.

Researchfish® was established with the support of MRC and initially focused on collecting outcomes from medical research. It has since been adopted by a broad range of funders, including the UK’s seven Research Councils. I recently had an interesting talk with the EPSRC’s Louise Tillman about what these outcomes might say about research software in the UK and, thanks to her, a week later I found myself in possession of a spreadsheet containing the research outcomes related to software for EPSRC researchers.

Just having the outcomes is pretty exciting, but to make things more interesting, I decided that I would write the analysis code myself. I’m not a software developer, but it’s getting progressively more difficult to stay that way when I spend my life surrounded by Research Software Engineers. Hence this post not only reports an investigation into Researchfish…

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RSE ConferenceBy Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director, Software Sustainability Institute

In a previous post, I discussed the success of the RSE Conference, but I’m hardly an impartial observer. To make sure that the conference improves every year, we ran a post-conference survey so that people could let us know what they thought.

We received 87 responses from the 202 attendees at the conference. That’s a response rate of 47% which is a phenomenal rate for this kind of survey. It’s best practice to offer a prize for feedback because it helps even out the balance of responses by providing an incentive to those who feel ambivalent or negative about the event. However, one £50 Amazon voucher doesn’t account for such a significant response, which means that people felt passionately about the conference. At this stage of the analysis, you’ve just got to cross your fingers and hope that this is good passion, rather than bad!

We asked whether people would attend the conference again—95% would—and whether they’d recommend the conference to others—100% would. That’s fantastic feedback, especially when we see that the conference was rated on average at 4.3 out of 5.

The majority of our attendees came from a background in Physical Sciences (30%), Computer Sciences (18%)…

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By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

I’m a lazy writer, so when it comes to summarising last week’s RSE Conference, I will defer instead to the genius of Adrian Jackson’s tweet:

With all the excitement about RSEs over the last couple of years, we knew it was the right time to run a conference to bring them together. We’ve had workshops and AGMs, but this was going to be bigger, better and way more intense. The thing that impressed me most was the buzz. We attracted a lot of new people, but they were interacting like old friends. We worked hard to have an inclusive event, but I think this is also representative of people feeling a part of the community. As one of the emails we received said:

“This might have been my 30th conference but it was the first where I felt thematically 100% at home and understood”.

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The 2016 Technology Exchange—presented by Internet2 and co-hosted by Florida International UniversityThe University of Florida, and Florida LambdaRail from September 25-28 in Miami—will provide an opportunity for just that and more. The annual event is designed to cross-pollinate ideas both within and among the four major technical communities convened.

Pioneers in a variety of R&E networking-related fields will share expertise, brainstorm, and forge new connections, while also participating in tutorials, working meetings, and full-group Exchange sessions. 

For more information, visit the conference website.

RSEHistory1.jpgBy Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director 

On a beautifully sunny day in March 2012, a small group met at Queen’s College Oxford and challenged a long-standing problem: why is there no career for software developers in academia? They didn’t know it at the time, but this meeting led to a nationwide campaign that created a vibrant and rapidly growing community, and established a new role in research: the Research Software Engineer.

The lack of a career path for academic software developers wasn’t new back in 2012, but it had gone largely unchallenged. Many academics were aware of the importance of software to research; they could see that the people who created this software went largely unrecognised, and they were beginning to worry about the consequences of this oversight. What happens when something is so vital to research, yet overlooked and severely under-resourced? Concerns like these were raised at our Collaborations Workshop, and this led the group to meet and challenge them.

A new role is born

The group that rose to the challenge consisted of Rob Baxter, Ian Bush, Dan Emmerson, Robert Haines, Neil Chue Hong, Dirk Gorissen, James Hetherington and Ilian Todorov (I missed this now-historic moment because I was running the conference). They realised that software developers lacked something more fundamental than just recognition—they lacked a name…

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A word cloud of the software used in researchBy Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve had occasion to ask people about the software they use in their research. We’re about to start a long-running survey to collect this information properly, but I thought it might be fun to take a rough look at the data we’ve collected from a few different surveys.

It would be easy to survey people if there existed a super-list of all possible research software from which people could choose. But no such list exists. This raises the question of how many different types of software do we expect to see in research? Hundreds, thousands, more? The lack of this list is rather annoying, because it means we have to collect freeform text rather than ask people to choose from a drop-down list. Free-form text is the bane of anyone who collects survey data, because it takes so much effort to clean. It is truly amazing how many different ways people can find to say the same thing!

I collected together five of our surveys from 2014 to 2016, which relates to 1261 survey participants. From these, we collected 2958 different responses to the question “What software do you use in your research?”, but after a few hours of fairly laborious data cleaning (using Open Refine to make things easier) these were boiled…

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By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

I’ve attended a lot of events during my time in academia, but I can think of only one where women outnumbered men (one of the BSA’s Science Communication Conferences). This is not a revelation, of course. It's well known that women are poorly represented at events: as keynote speakers, on expert panels, or just as attendees in general. When I've discussed this issue in the past, I've often been asked "How many women do you expect to see?". It’s a practical question, but not one I've yet seen answered.

Should the first target for an academic event be to simply mirror the population within the event's discipline? I’ve written this blog post with this principle in mind, but also to start a discussion about whether this is indeed a helpful target.​ It occurs to me that people must have already tried this, so I'd also welcome any data on these attempts and whether they successfully improved representation.

We're looking for equality of opportunity throughout academia, but this is a distant proposition in some disciplines. If we aim for representation as a first step, we provide a target that's easy to measure and possible to achieve. If an organiser can prove success at this first target - in other words, that they are representing the gender split in their community - it would help raise…

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The Software Sustainability Institute, a team of experts from the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and Southampton, who are committed to cultivating world-class research through software, has received £3.5m funding to continue its valuable support for the UK's research software community.

Two new funders, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), have joined forces with the Institute's original funder, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to continue to invest in research that is underpinned by software until at least 2019.

Neil Chue Hong, the Institute's Director and Principal Investigator, said: "The Institute is delighted with this development, which shows that the importance of software - and the goals of software sustainability - are reaching an ever-broader audience."

Professor Phillip Nelson, EPSRC's Chief Executive, said: "We hope that the Institute will build on its internationally leading work to support researchers from across the disciplines and help them accelerate their research through the use of reliable, reusable and reproducible software."

The Institute was founded in 2010 and over the last five years it has helped thousands of…

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By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

This month, we welcome a new team member, attend a meeting of European organisations with an interest in software sustainability and support a bid to further bolster the RSE community.

We are happy to welcome Olivier Philippe to the Southampton team. He will be based in Southampton team as our new Policy Officer. Olivier brings with him experience in research design, surveying and is skills in both R and Python. One of Olivier’s first tasks will be to work on improving the transparency of last year’s software survey by repeating the analysis in R using Knitr to track every operation. He will also begin work on a survey of Research Software Engineers which will provide a valuable insight that we need to support the community.

Software sustainability in Europe

An interesting development this month was the invitation of Neil and myself to a Knowledge Exchange workshop on software sustainability. Knowledge Exchange is a co-operative effort that supports the use and development of ICT infrastructure for higher education and research. Their desire to investigate software sustainability shows the increasing interest in our field outside of the UK and will provide an excellent opportunity to pass on…

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By Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director and Policy Lead.

August saw the foundation of a new group to support Research Software Engineers, the release of a paper that had many in the community up in arms, and progress towards a better understanding of who’s being employed in UK academia. We’re also looking for community editors for our blog!

Supporting the leaders of Research Software Engineers

We’re now seeing the rise of groups of Research Software Engineers across the UK. This is fantastic news both for our campaign and, more importantly, for UK research.

The creation of RSE groups brings with it a new problem: how do we share information so that everyone benefits from the success of other groups (and no one repeats the failures). The easiest way is to bring together the leaders of RSE groups for regular meetings, which we hope will foster an air of open communication. The first formal meeting of this group took place on 3 August at the University of Southampton.

The purpose of the Research Software Engineers Leaders (RSEL) is to help leaders of research software groups share information and resources. It’s not easy setting up a new type of group in academia, so there’s plenty of room to benefit from the experience of others. By sharing resources, such as training materials and job descriptions, we can reduce duplication of effort which saves time for other work. The RSEL will use its combined experience…

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