Learning and Working Together: Research Software Organisations Around the World

Posted by s.aragon on 12 June 2018 - 11:13am

28038447138_47c0a422f8_z.jpgBy Scott Henwood, Director of Research Software at CANARIE.

This post was first published in the CANARIE blog.

My previous blog posts have focused on the research software landscape in Canada, but the challenges and opportunities we face are not different from those in other parts of the world. In this post, I provide a brief overview of three international organisations that CANARIE works with as part of our Research Software program. These organisations are very different in their structure and approach to excellence in research software, but as you’ll see, they are all trying to solve common problems.

The UK Software Sustainability Institute (SSI)

Recognising that seven out of ten UK researchers say that their research would be impossible without software, the UK’s SSI was formed in 2010 to provide a national facility to enable the development and sustainability of better research software. The SSI has become an international leader in software for research and, along with their work on software sustainability (long-term availability, improvement and support), they also support initiatives in the following areas:

  • Skills and Training – Although there are professional software developers focused on creating software to support research, there are also a large number of researchers with minimal formal training in software development who are writing their own software. Training allows such researchers to effectively develop and maintain software to support their research.
  • Best Practices and Planning – A series of workshops brings together researchers, developers, innovators, managers, funders, publishers, leaders, and educators to collaborate, explore best practices, and discuss the future of research software.
  • Outreach – A fellowship program funds computational researchers to develop research software skills and promote software to the wider research community. More recently, the SSI has begun to work with groups in other countries to help them form their own national research software organisations.
  • Research Software as a Career – The SSI directly supports the UK Research Software Engineer Association (UKRSE), a group that advocates for the recognition and career opportunities for research software engineers in academia.

What’s a Science Gateway?

Also known as a virtual research environment, a virtual laboratory, or a research software platform, is a large software system that does most of what researchers need to do in their research workflows. Science gateways typically provide access to digital infrastructure components such as high performance computing, storage resources and sensors. They also often provide services that allow researchers to collaborate including discussion forums and access to shared data. Today, a science gateway typically supports researchers in one scientific discipline or possibly a group of related disciplines.

The International Coalition on Science Gateways (ICSG)

Although all of the organisations discussed here participate in the international community, the ICSG has the most international focus.  It brings together national initiatives to provide leadership on the future direction of science gateways, facilitates awareness of issues around their use and development, and shares best practice in the field.

As more and more research becomes dependent on software, science gateways provide non-expert users access to the infrastructure components (e.g. high performance computing, storage resources, and sensors) required to complete the research.  As such, science gateways are becoming increasing vital to the future of computational research.  To help inform policy as it relates to research, funding, and digital infrastructure, the ICSG is working on disseminating the concept and value of science gateways to a broader audience.

With members from Australia, several African countries, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK (and other European countries), and the United States, the ICSG provides an international forum to:

  • Provide leadership on the future direction of science gateways – Science gateways are often developed under the direction of the researchers who need them. Multiple national, regional and international science gateways programs exist, in addition to an ever-growing number of science gateways in diverse research domains. The ICSG enables this community to come together to enable broader influence on regulatory and policy agendas around the word.
  • Facilitate awareness of developments in science gateways at the international, national and regional levels – Sometimes an existing science gateway, its components, or underlying architecture will meet the needs of other researchers or gateway developers. Understanding what’s available can lead to collaborations that ultimately accelerate the research.
  • Identify and share best practices for the development of science gateways – In most cases, science gateways are tools that enable research rather than being the subject of the research themselves. With this in mind, researchers typically want to spend as little time as possible developing a gateway. Having access to knowledge accumulated by others can speed up this development.

The Science Gateways Community Institute (SGCI)

The SGCI, a US-based organisation with major funding from the National Science Foundation, was founded in 2016 to provide resources, expertise, support, and education to the science gateway community. As a service-oriented organisation, the SGCI provides services to all gateways regardless of their funding model. These services include:

  • Advice on technology, business planning and project management – Gateways require diverse expertise, but projects often can’t afford the full-time experts they need. Through SGCI, clients can consult with experts on topics such as usability, cybersecurity, technology selection, community development, and business planning. This helps them get the expertise when they need it, through the life of their project. Participants in the full-week Bootcamp engage in hands-on activities to help them articulate the value of their work to key stakeholders and to create a strong development, operations, and sustainability plan.
  • Extended Developer Support – SGCI can pair staff with clients for 6-month to 1-year collaborative development periods. During this time, SGCI staff provide hands-on help to clients to build and improve gateways, leaving clients with the skills to maintain the software going forward. This work is technology agnostic; the best approach is chosen for the client.
  • Science gateway hosting – SGCI provides a hosting environment, including virtual machine images pre-populated with software used to build gateways. This development environment supports rapid prototyping and migration to a production environment.
  • Support for institutions in setting up local research software development groups – Much gateway development occurs on campuses, but this work is often in silos, with developers working directly with faculty in many departments across a campus. Expertise is distributed and there is often little interaction amongst these developers. By creating more centralised teams or matrixed organisations, the variety of expertise needed for excellent gateway development can be pooled. This makes more efficient use of developer time and provides a more diverse expertise pool for faculty and researchers who need to build gateways.
  • A catalogue of available science gateways – Sometimes an existing gateway can be a perfect fit for a researcher, if only they were aware that it existed. To point researchers in the right direction, the SGCI has implemented a catalogue of science gateways at sciencegateways.org. This helps gateways advertise what they have to offer, spurring reuse and reducing reinvention.
  • Conferences, webinars, and developer support – Even seasoned developers need to keep up-to-date on new trends in research and software development. Conferences provide important opportunities to interact with colleagues across domains, learning through tutorials, talks, and poster sessions. Conferences also provide unique publishing opportunities, including an annual special journal issue featuring international contributions.

Working Together

This is by no means an exhaustive list of international organisations focussed on research software. CANARIE is always interested in international collaborations so if you are part of an organisation not listed here, we’d be happy to meet with you.

More Information

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to the following for their suggestions and review of this document:

  • Dr. Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director and Policy & Communications Lead, UK Software Sustainability Institute
  • Nancy Wilkins-Diehr, Director, Science Gateways Community Institute
  • Dr. Michelle Barker, Deputy Director, Research Software Infrastructure, NeCTAR