By Joe Parker, Research Fellow, National Biofilms Innovation Centre
The 2019 National Biofilms Innovation Centre workshop brought together 20 attendees from seven UK universities, plus Unilever, in a hi-tech but cosy space at the Malmaison in the heart of Birmingham.
The National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) is a national Innovation Knowledge Centre, established in 2017, with a remit to link, support and catalyse research into biofilms. We ran this event alongside the Software Sustainability Institute in a bid to raise awareness of the need for sustainability in software, particularly when it comes to the potential risks to software reproducibility. This had become particularly apparent when reading the responses from the biofilms community to a BBRSC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) consultation on data intensive bioscience in the summer of 2019
We were very lucky to get help from the Institute. Having discussed the responses to the consultation, we agreed to run a joint workshop to spread some best practice, and to help both organisations get an idea of how things stood in UK biofilms research and software.
The event was held on 28 November and involved four breakout sessions and short talks throughout the day. There was lots of time to reflect and to network in coffee and lunch breaks, and attendees and facilitators mixed freely - helped no doubt by the caffeine and snacks provided throughout.
The day’s sessions introduced participants to the idea of software sustainability, to how to achieve software that is accessible and reproducible, and to how software sustainability helps to drive data management, accessibility and reuse.
Speakers had to take into account the broad range of experience in the room, with attendees ranging from microbiologists who work in Excel to physicists coding agent-based simulations in C.
Breakout group responses were captured on flipcharts, which are currently being transcribed, and on online forms. In some exercises the participants self-reflected on their own practice, and these thoughts will be sent to them later by email.
It was a successful day for both the NBIC and the Institute, and feedback from attendees has been positive. One call to action was to build “a platform to ask question, find resources, and share training information”. We are exploring this possibility by using platforms available across our partner universities.
Attendees came away with a range of techniques and best-practice tips to improve the sustainability of their research software including simple things such as organising computer folders for each project so that data, analyses and outputs are separated, with plain text files describing each analysis with brief details of when and why it was carried out, and by whom.
The event was an experiment, but it appears there is a place for an annual meeting in this area. Next year’s event is expected to focus on training on software and data carpentry for doctoral students and high-career researchers.
Thank you to Simon Hettrick and Steve Crouch for their expertise, and to Jo Slater-Jefferies, Jeremy Webb and Joe Parker from the NBIC who tied this in to domain-specific (biofilms) practice. Sara Kalvala (Warwick) and Jing Lin (NBIC) also assisted with discussion moderation.