The RSE18 times

Posted by s.aragon on 27 September 2018 - 9:34am
Image courtesy of Cristin Merritt,
WHPC Social Media Volunteer.

By Alejandra Gonzalez-Beltran, Software Sustainability Institute Fellow.

This year I attended for the first time the third edition of the RSE conference thanks to the support of the Software Sustainability Institute Fellowship. The conference brings together Research Software Engineers (or RSEs) from across the UK and the world.

But what is an RSE? In brief, an RSE is someone with a research background, skilled in software development and who cares about applying best practices for software sustainability when producing software needed for research. If you want to know more, check out the blog posts at the Software Sustainability Institute, some of which deal with the Research Software communitythe reasons for being an RSEwhat is not part of the role, and how the role has actually a lot in common with that of a data scientist.

At the conference, we were reminded of the history of the RSE term and the community around it. The term was coined in 2012 during a meeting of like-minded people in Oxford. The meeting was organised to highlight the importance of both research software and the people that make it possible, whose role and career paths weren’t clearly recognised. A lot has happened since, and it was exciting to hear Christopher Woods announcing the creation of the Society of Research Software Engineering. If you want to know more about it, sign up at the website.

The conference spanned over two packed days of activities. A welcoming environment was set from the start with a code of conduct and diversity statement on the website, plus a reminder about it during the initial session. The importance of this to establish a positive atmosphere cannot be overstated.

Behind the conference there is a growing and bubbling community, as it is evident from Neil Chue Hong’s tweet:

and also all the tweets with the #RSE18 hashtag.

Each morning included two keynote speakers with varying and interesting topics:

  • Prof Eleanor Robson (webtwitter) from UCL gave an inspiring talk about the role that research software played in post-conflict Middle Eastern countries, in reducing researchers isolation and increasing the accessibility to reliable information and research and teaching materials.
  • Dr Andrew Fitzgibbon (webtwitter) from Microsoft Research works on computer vision systems and showed us several applications of computer graphics, including his work on making movie magic, and was around to let us use the mixed reality smart glasses HoloLens.
  • Prof James Howison (webtwitter) from the Information School of the University of Texas at Austin, United States, presented a framework for the discussion of software sustainability. The framework provides useful concepts to discuss software development vs maintenance, the cycle of software/use/impact/resources and how it varies in commercial, open source and research software settings. His slides are here.
  • Dr Andreas Fidjeland (LinkedIn) is the Head of Research Engineering at Google DeepMind and mentioned that he moved from Academia to Research Software Engineering in Industry and talked about the importance of RSEs to help scientific discoveries and in particular, the work they are doing at Google DeepMind.

In the afternoon there were very interesting parallel sessions, which made it very difficult to choose what to attend. The sessions included tracks covering different themes, panels and hands-on workshops.

I found the session on ‘Funder’s perspectives’ very encouraging for those of us who care about research software (and data!). The presentations were by Susan Morell from EPSRC/UKRI and David Carr from the Wellcome Trust.

Susan Morrell mentioned that she wants to be remembered as the person who funded the EPSRC RSE fellowships and showed us the UKRI strategy for software infrastructure.

David Carr mentioned Wellcome Trust’s commitment to open research, including research data sharing where their main efforts have been up until now, but also research software. He reminded us of the survey they did on researchers’ attitudes about open research (Towards Open Research) that they published a couple of years ago.

For information on the rest of the conference, visit the website, where you should be able to find links to presentations and materials from all the sessions in the near future.

To sum it up, if you are interested in research software, the RSE conferences is a place you will want to be, because as Alys Brett put it, it will top you up of ‘ambitious-yet-practical community spirit for the rest of the year’!

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