By Mike Croucher, Research Software Engineer at University of Sheffield and Software Sustainability Institute Fellow
Reposted with the author's permission. This article was originally published in Walking Randomly.
The job title ‘Research Software Engineer’ (RSE) wasn’t really a thing until 2012 when the term was invented in a Software Sustainability Institute collaborations workshop. Of course, there were lots of people doing Research Software Engineering before then but we had around 200 different job titles, varying degrees of support and career options tended to look pretty bleak. A lot has happened since then including the 2016 EPSRC RSE Fellows, the first international RSE conference and a host of University-RSE groups popping up all over the country.
In my talk, Is your Research Software Correct?, I tell the audience ‘If you need help, refer to your local RSE team. All good Universities have a central RSE team and if yours does not…..I refer you back to the word ‘good'' It always leads to healthy debate when talking at an institution that’s yet to get involved.
Centrally funded, University-wide RSE teams are useful because they offer a way to maintain a pool of expertise that can be costed into grants. It’s the model we are starting to employ at University of Sheffield following its success at trailblazing sites such as UCL and Manchester.
For this model to work, it is vital that we collaborate with researchers on getting RSE time costed into grants. In turn, researchers worry that they are asking funders for ‘something a bit strange’ which might lead to their project being turned down.
Asking for RSE Support in your grant is a good idea
There are two main arguments that I use when attempting to alleviate these concerns. The first is that we are quite successful in obtaining RSE funding, even in areas that you might not expect. The second is to point to funding calls where the funding council explicitly recommends RSE costing to be considered where appropriate.
The EPSRC have led the way in the UK with its RSE fellowship call, funding the Software Sustainability Institute (these days its funded by 3 research councils including BBSRC and ESRC) and various other initiatives.
Earlier this month, I was very happy to see that the BBSRC have explicitly mentioned Research Software Engineers in one of their latest calls: Machine Learning to Generate New Biological Understanding. In the call, the BBSRC say:
We note the significant contribution of staff such as Research Software Engineers to interdisciplinary computational projects such as machine learning, and supports recognition of their contributions and encourages applicants to cost them appropriately on applications to this highlight.
I feel that this is a great move by the BBSRC and hope to see other funding councils follow their lead in future.