Research Software Engineers

Founders of the de-RSE chapter
Founders of the de-RSE chapter

By Martin Hammitzsch, GFZ Potsdam, Stephan Janosch, MPI CBG & Frank Loeffler, Louisiana State University

The days following the first conference of Research Software Engineers (RSEs) saw the launch of a German RSE chapter de-RSE. It was formed by RSEs working inside and outside Germany, and it will further the shared objectives of RSEs and become the collective mouthpiece for RSEs within the German science.

All of the authors were exposed to the day-to-day problems caused by using software in science, and this meant that many of us were following the Software Sustainability Institute, and a few other activities around the globe. The lucky ones among us were even able to participate in events over the last few years to see how to improve our situation. Over the last few years a critical mass of motivated Research Software Engineers (RSEs) formed at various locations across Europe, North America and a few other countries. Then in September 2016, the world's first conference for RSEs took place in Manchester. It was the right time for this event. Bringing together RSEs lead to discussions about how to transfer the UKRSE spirit to other countries. How could other national science systems benefit from the professionalisation of software engineering in sciences? How can the people behind research software receive the the acknowledgement and resources they deserve?

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RSE conferenceBy Catherine Jones, Diversity Chair.

Why did the RSE Conference have a diversity chair? What was the impact? What can we do better next time? These are the three questions I hope this blog will answer.

Different backgrounds and experiences enhance a team and help to avoid group think. Diversity has many different aspects, but the main two that the RSE conference focussed on were gender and ethnicity. It was an aspiration that the conference organisers, speakers and attendees reflected the makeup of the RSE community. Having someone responsible for diversity ensured that it was consciously considered during planning. As part of this commitment to diversity, the RSE Conference had a diversity statement  and code of conduct.

Who organised it?

What was the makeup of the committee? This was remarkedly gender balanced for the domain, the chart belows shows the gender split. Sadly it wasn’t very ethnically diverse.

Gender on committee

Who contributed?

Of the registered attendees 72% were male, 16% were female and 12% preferred not to say or didn’t answer. So that for those who identified their gender 18% were female. Looking at ethnicity: 76%…

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Participants of #hgfos16By Stephan Janosch, Research Software Engineer at Max-Planck-Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden

RSEs in Germany

A handful of people from Germany attended the first Research Software Engineers conference #RSE16. However, few as they may have been, they made a plan: to transfer the community spirit among research software engineers from the UK  back to Germany. After some discussion, we decided  to register the domain http://www.de-RSE.org and set up a website and a mailing list.

Once the mailing list was online, a big surprise was posted within a few days: a free open science workshop for 70 people on scientific software would take place on November 2016 in Germany. Now, that would be the perfect chance to kick start a German RSE community, wouldn’t it?

Workshop—“Access to and reuse of scientific software”

November was upon us faster than expected, and so was the 1.5-day workshop (hashtag: #hgfos16) about accessibility and reuse of scientific software, organised by the Helmholtz Open Science office. An audience of 77 people, as diverse as that at #RSE16, listened to three…

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Applications are invited for the above posts to work as a Research Fellow/Research Associate/Research Software Engineer/Senior Research Software Engineer on the SpiNNaker project. The SpiNNaker architecture is optimised to support the simulation of simple (point-like) neurons and their connections (or synapses). This architecture now has a world-wide user base, drawn to a reliable and flexible platform for real-time neural network simulation; this community is comprised of both traditional computational neuroscientists and also scientists and engineers from application areas such as robotics.

The position is funded by the EU Flagship “Human Brain Project” which aims to provide researchers worldwide with ICT tools and mathematical models to assist with understanding the function of the human brain and for emulating its computational capabilities. Although the HBP project itself is expected to run to 31 March 2023, the current funding to support the posts advertised is until 31 March 2018.

For further information, see the full job description.

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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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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By Mike Croucher, SSI Fellow, Research Software Engineer and author of Walking Randomly.

William Stein, lead developer of the computer algebra system, Sage, and its cloud-based spin-off, SageMathCloud, recently announced that he was quitting academia to go and form a company. In his talk, William says "I can’t figure out how to create Sage in academia. The money isn’t there. The mathematical community doesn’t care enough. The only option left is for me to build a company."

His talk is linked below and his slides are also available.

“Every great open source math library is built on the ashes of someone’s academic career.”

William’s departure is not unique. Here’s a tweet from Wes Mckinney, creator of pandas, one of the essential data science tools for Python.

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We are looking for similar stories: good research software people who felt that they had to leave academia because there wasn’t enough support, recognition…

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MapBy Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

If we want research to benefit from reliable software, we need to create a home in academia for Research Software Engineers (RSEs). In the long term, this means the creation of an RSE career path, but that involves a rather heavyweight shift in the way that universities deal with staff. Fortunately, there’s also a short-term solution: create more “research software groups”. This week, leaders of these groups met to discuss how they can work together, and how they can support the formation of new research software groups across the UK.

If you manage Research Software Engineers (even if they don’t use that job title) and want to benefit from the experience and resources of similar groups, please get in touch. We are keen to include representatives from across the UK.

RSEs who work on their own tend to have a difficult relationship with their workload: there’s either too much work, or there isn’t enough to sustain their salary. By collecting RSEs into a Research Software Group, the demand for RSEs can be equalised, providing a more managed workload and an even income stream. This makes it easier to choose a career as an RSE, which means we get more RSEs working in academia - and more RSEs can only be good for research.

The purpose of the RSEL is to help leaders of research software…

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A growing number of people in academia combine expertise in programming with an intricate understanding of research. Although this combination of skills is extremely valuable, these people lack a formal place in the academic system. This means there is no easy way top recognise their contribution, to reward them, or to represent their views.

Without a name, it is difficult for people to rally around a cause, so a group created the term Research Software Engineer (RSE) at our Collaborations Workshop in 2012. Since that time, we have campaigned to raise awareness of the role and bring the community together, and we have formed a community of RSEs that is now a democratic organisation with over 300 members.

Now that we have a strong community, the next stage of our campaign is to focus on employers of RSEs to ensure that career paths are put in place, we will campaign within different domains to draw a wider variety of RSEs into the community, and we will raise awareness of the importance of including a RSEs on funding proposals.

You can learn more from our not-so-brief history of RSEs.

A recognised position for RSEs in academia is fundamental ​in a world where most research is powered by software.

Further reading

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