Building Capability and Support in Research Software

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Computing


"Software is the most prevalent of all the instruments used in modern science" [Goble 2014]. Scientific software is not just widely used [SSI 2014] but also widely developed. Yet much of it is developed by researchers who have little understanding of even the basics of modern software development with the knock-on effects to their productivity, and the reliability, readability and reproducibility of their software [Nature Biotechnology]. Many are long-tail researchers working in small groups - even Big Science operations like the SKA are operationally undertaken by individuals collectively.

Technological development in software is more like a cliff-face than a ladder - there are many routes to the top, to a solution. Further, the cliff face is dynamic - constantly and quickly changing as new technologies emerge and decline. Determining which technologies to deploy and how best to deploy them is in itself a specialist domain, with many features of traditional research.

Researchers need empowerment and training to give them confidence with the available equipment and the challenges they face. This role, akin to that of an Alpine guide, involves support, guidance, and load carrying. When optimally performed it results in a researcher who knows what challenges they can attack alone, and where they need appropriate support. Guides can help decide whether to exploit well-trodden paths or explore new possibilities as they navigate through this dynamic environment.

These guides are highly trained, technology-centric, research-aware individuals who have a curiosity driven nature dedicated to supporting researchers by forging a research software support career. Such Research Software Engineers (RSEs) guide researchers through the technological landscape and form a human interface between scientist and computer. A well-functioning RSE group will not just add to an organisation's effectiveness, it will have a multiplicative effect since it will make every individual researcher more effective. It has the potential to improve the quality of research done across all University departments and faculties.

My work plan provides a bottom-up approach to providing RSE services that is distinctive from yet complements the top-down approach provided by the EPRSC-funded Software Sustainability Institute.

The outcomes of this fellowship will be:

Local and National RSE Capability: A RSE Group at Sheffield as a credible roadmap for others pump-priming a UK national research software capability; and a national Continuing Professional Development programme for RSEs.

Scalable software support methods: A scalable approach based on "nudging", to providing research software support for scientific software efficiency, sustainability and reproducibility, with quality-guidelines for research software and for researchers on how best to incorporate research software engineering support within their grant proposals.

HPC for long-tail researchers: 'HPC-software ramps' and a pathway for standardised integration of HPC resources into Desktop Applications fit for modern scientific computing; a network of HPC-centric RSEs based around shared resources; and a portfolio of new research software courses developed with partners.

Communication and public understanding: A communication campaign to raise the profile of research software exploiting high profile social media and online resources, establishing an informal forum for research software debate.


[Goble 2014] Goble, C. "Better Software, Better Research". IEEE Internet Computing 18(5): 4-8 (2014)

[SSI 2014] Hettrick, S. "It's impossible to conduct research without software, say 7 out of 10 UK researchers" (2014)

[Nature 2015] Editorial "Rule rewrite aims to clean up scientific software", Nature Biotechnology 520(7547) April 2015

Planned Impact

The proposed program of work will bridge between academic researchers and commercial and non-commercial providers of research software. It will deliver improvements in the availability, usability and awareness of research software and best practice in its use and development. The impacts will be felt both at the University of Sheffield and across the national research software landscape. Through collaboration with commercial and non-commercial partners and delivery of ideas both in Sheffield and across the UK, I expect to provide a framework for research software support that will be used as an international exemplar of best practice.

My workplan provides a bottom-up approach to providing RSE services that is distinctive from yet complements the top-down approach provided by the EPRSC-funded Software Sustainability Institute.

Academic researchers and RSEs at The University of Sheffield will benefit from the formation of a RSE group whose remit is to provide scalable RSE support to the entire University. This group will directly improve academic software, provide a wide range of training opportunities, advise on best practice and directly contribute to research grants. The RSE profession will benefit from the creation of this high-profile node in the national RSE network.

Academic researchers and RSEs around the UK will benefit from the formation of a RSE brokerage. Seeded initially by effort from The Software Sustainability Institute, Manchester, UCL and Sheffield (See letters of support), this will form a national RSE capability. This capability will be enhanced through the development of a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme.

Commercial developers of scientific software will contribute to and benefit from the development of research software guidelines aimed at easing integration into commercial products. The RSE CPD programme will take contributions from commercial partners (see letters of support) which will assist them in developing closer links with academia and disseminating their latest products and features.

Academic researchers and RSEs around the world will benefit from the open course materials developed in collaboration with high-profile project partners including Microsoft Research, the N8 research partnership of northern universities and Software Sustainability Institute (see letters of support). Initial outputs will include 'HPC Carpentry' and 'Software and Data Carpentry for Windows'.

All users and developers of research software will benefit from the wide range of articles published on social media, blogs and websites. In particular, the 'long tail' of self-taught research software developers will have access to a large quantity of quality advice and tutorial materials developed as a result of RSE consultancy activities. These will be disseminated on my popular (500,00 annual visitors) website, along with the websites of project partners.

The improved research made possible by the improved software landscape will benefit the wider public. Previous work includes research in areas such as land-mine detection, radio astronomy, medical image processing, computational finance, numerical algorithms, pure mathematics and functional genomics. It is expected that the support provided by this fellowship will increase the breadth and depth of such contributions.


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