The impact of the Institute: 10 years on

Posted by g.law on 5 May 2020 - 8:09am
water splash
Photo by Alex Perez

By Gillian Law

The Software Sustainability Institute was set up on 1 May 2010. Could the team at the time have anticipated the impact it would have over the decade to come?

The past ten years have seen the Institute create a strong and diverse community, run increasingly popular events every year, and develop recognition and a solid career structure for Research Software Engineers (RSE). The Society of Research Software Engineering was established last year, and a powerful cadre of almost 150 Fellows is in place to keep the Institute’s work moving forward.

James Hetherington, Director of Digital Research Infrastructure at UK Research and Innovation, has been involved with the Institute since 2012 when he was introduced to the Institute and recognised a common goal.

“I had just come back into academia from a role in industry, into a fairly lowly post doc role, and I was trying to self-define as a scientific software engineer. And then someone mentioned to me that there was this thing, the Software Sustainability Institute, and I was like – what? This sounds like something for me!”

Hetherington went on to found the first Research Software Group in a UK University, at UCL in 2012, and became one of the first Institute Fellows.

“The SSI has had a real impact on computationally based research in the UK and around the world, as well as an enormous impact on me personally,” Hetherington says.

The Institute arrived just as the UK eScience programme was coming to an end, and created a community of people who wanted to use software to improve science, and to improve recognition of the role of scientific software, Hetherington says. That community has been one of the most powerful things to develop through the Institute’s work.

Research Software Engineers

The identification of the RSE job title and the promotion of it as a valid career has been one of the high points of the Institute’s work over the past ten years. The job title that was created during a session at Collaborations Workshop 2012 has gone on to be recognised across much of UK academia and around the world. There are now RSE groups at over 28 UK universities plus more internationally, and the role is well recognised within academia even if there is still work to do.  

Society logoLast year saw the establishment of the Society of Research Software Engineers, a charitable incorporated organisation that replaced the UK Research Software Engineers Association, itself established in 2013.

The Institute has been “a force for good in pushing the RSE as a career path in academia, giving it a much better status than before. This has helped many individuals, and hopefully will continue to let more people stay in academia doing what they love,” says Institute Fellow Stephen Eglen, Reader in Computational Neuroscience, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge.

A major turning point was a survey undertaken in 2014, says Daniel S. Katz, Assistant Director for Scientific Software and Applications at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and Associate Research Professor in Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois.

“They basically wrote to about 15,000 academics asking how software is used in their research, and found that about 92 percent of research used software. That was one of the first attempts to demonstrate how important software really is to research, and what its role is.”

Creating the RSE role “is not about moaning because we want to have better careers for us because we want better careers,” says Hetherington. “It’s about what science needs. It’s the collaborative nature of it, it’s connecting the two main communities to the computational scientists that is particularly powerful.”

Community and events

One of the greatest impacts of the Institute over the past decade has been the creation of a diverse, inclusive and friendly community. Regular events including the annual Collaborations Workshops and conferences that bring together people from across a wide range of roles and backgrounds.

“The SSI has had a huge impact on research software in the UK by building, essentially from scratch, a community supported by research funders themselves in the UK,” says Becca Wilson, who is currently UKRI Innovation Fellow with HDR UK at Newcastle University, developing tools for the sharing, access, and immersive data visualisation of sensitive health data.

“I first discovered the SSI around six years ago, at a time when I had joined a research group developing a piece of statistical software. There was very little training available at the time for scientists transitioning to research software engineer roles,” Wilson says.

It’s something that the team focused on right from the start, says Carole Goble, Institute Co-Investigator, and Professor of Computer Science at The University of Manchester.

“We really promoted community building as a key aspect, determined that we would not be a software house that would take over people’s code and ‘make it sustainable for them’. Instead, we would teach them how to do it themselves. And over the years, with Software Carpentry, RSEs and the Fellows programme, we stuck to that,” Goble says.

“A policy of strategic partnerships - with, for example, the ELIXIR EU Data Infrastructure for Life Sciences and with the Carpentries - was also critical to our success and our credibility. We are seen as collaborators rather than rivals. We have been smart in being ubiquitous and, and in some cases taking a leadership role. Our strategic partnerships with centres like the Netherlands eScience Centre are in the same vein for success - we get amplification effects beyond our expectations,” she says.

The community that has been created around the Institute is unusual, says Hetherington.

“The group of people that gets together at the Institute events really feels like a community in a way that you don’t get at many events. There’s a nice balance of career stages as well, and that’s another thing the Institute has done well: to build what feels like a peer group but that contains people in their early, mid and late careers,” he says.


“You’re staking your career on a weird idea and you’ve no idea if it’s going to come off or not – so knowing there are other people who are also making the same bet gives you less of a sense that you’re in the middle of nowhere!” – James Hetherington


The Institute’s events have also helped to popularise the use of ‘unconferences’ and novel presentation styles like ‘flash talks’, says Eglen, helping to make them “much more democratic than traditional conferences”.

Events have been popular right from the start, says Institute consultant Mike Jackson. “I remember running an instalment of the Institute's "What Makes Good Code Good" discussion session at the INTECOL13 ecology conference at the ExCel centre in London's Docklands in August 2013. Based on previous runs at other events, I expected about 20 attendees for the session. I was somewhat gobsmacked when about 100 arrived! Fortunately, Carole, Neil and Steve also dropped in so could help with participant-wrangling.”

The Institute’s community building has been one of its strongest assets, alongside its ability to raise awareness of issues and also work with funders, says Alexander Konovalov, Research Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Computational Algebra, University of St Andrews.


“This was a real partnership with funders. And that is not so usual. 

Never underestimate the need for people to eat chicken dinners in hotels to get across the ideas at the government level.” – Carole Goble


Carpentries

Konovalov is also a researcher and trainer for The Carpentries. The Carpentries teach computing and data skills to researchers across all disciplines, allowing them to undertake computational or data-intensive research that they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

The Institute is an official partner of The Carpentries and coordinates activities in the UK, helping to organise and run workshops, and nurture the UK community by bringing in and training new instructors and members.

The Carpentries has grown from running seven workshops in the UK in 2012 to 89 in 2019, and from an initial five trainee instructors to 64 new instructors last year. 

“SSI helped push a lot of development of Software carpentry,” says Eglen.

Fellowship

The Institute’s Fellowship programme has developed into one of its strongest community strengths, with almost 150 Fellows currently involved.

The Fellows have been instrumental in taking the Institute’s work into new areas outside traditional science, says Fellow James Baker, Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives, School of History, Art History and Philosophy, University of Sussex.

“The Institute has become a trusted source of expertise/advice in UK higher education. That it has - even if to a lesser extent - become recognised in the humanities and in cultural institutions is something I wouldn’t have expected, and something the SSI can be proud of. My fellow Fellows from those sectors deserve real credit for making that happen.”

Fellow Caroline Jay, Reader in Computer Science, Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester, and Research Director of the Institute says “A highlight for me was working with Shoaib Sufi, the Institute’s Community Lead, in an evaluation of our Fellowship Programme which demonstrates how influential the SSI has been in gaining recognition for the role of research software engineers in academia.

One of the best decisions made by the Institute was to make Fellowship a permanent role, says James Hetherington.

“I think it was the Fellows themselves who suggested that instead of being a Fellow for a year, getting your money and then giving way to the next year of Fellows, we should have ‘once a Fellow, always a Fellow’, and an ongoing relationship with the Institute.  

“I know I’m biased, but when I look at the page of photographs of all the cohorts of Fellows over the years, that’s a globally leading, vibrant community. It’s movers and shakers!” Hetherington says.

Stephen Eglen agrees. “The Institute has managed to create a diverse fellowship far beyond what I imagined, with people coming from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds.”


“The SSI leadership didn’t give up on the humanities and culture institutions, when I know they got some pushback once or twice!” - James Baker


Recognition of software

One of the Institute’s targets over the years has been to improve recognition of the impact of software on research, and encourage researchers to cite the software used in their work.

“We still don’t have software credited and cited,” says Goble. “[There have been] lots of little efforts, no real change. We are just twiddling at the edges of REF.”

But Katz believes things are starting to change.

“I’d say that in fields where software has been used for a long time, there’s not been so much of a change but it’s become more obvious in other fields like the humanities, where people may not have thought they were using software, but you can get them to recognise how they actually do their work.

“In terms of citing software, I feel like we’re close to an inflection point where things will accelerate, where journals and publishers will say that you have to cite the software that you’ve used in your work. That will cause a lot of people to change what they’re doing.

The Institute’s newly launched Hidden REF project aims to identify new ways that the work of software engineers can be recognised, beyond the standard measures used by most universities.


“Don’t forget the power of the slogan: Better Software, Better Research. Our slogan and stickers are dynamite. I have seen them everywhere, on policy makers laptops, in forums etc. It was a very smart move, and even smarter to downplay the project and up-play the slogan.” – Carole Goble


Open science

The Institute has also played a major role in changing perception of the use of software in open science, says Katz.

“People used to think of open science as being about open access and making data available, and tended to leave off the fact that the methods and the software also need to be open. The Institute has played a major role in improving the recognition of the role of software there,” he says.

Future

What will the next ten years hold for the Institute? Look out for our follow up article tomorrow.


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