What is a Research Software Engineer?

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

By now, many people in the UK (well, many of the sort who read this blog) will have heard the term Research Software Engineer, but what exactly is an RSE, and what effect will the creation of this title have? To understand, we need to go back to the Software Sustainability Institute's Collaborations Workshop in early 2012 (summarized in these blog posts and others). Those discussions led to this position paper at Digital Research 2012, whose authors argued that:

Research institutions need individuals with a new professional designation—the research software engineer. These individuals combine a professional attitude to the exercise of software engineering with a deep understanding of research topics. They lead the design and construction of increasingly complex research software systems, and play an important part in the co-design of research requirements, understanding and addressing software engineering questions that arise in research planning.

The importance of recognizing this role is hard to understand if you've never worked inside a large system, and hard to overstate if you have. Far too many of the people who build the complex software that scientists rely on live from one grant to the next, and constantly have to re-explain to the new chair or dean what exactly they do. They are as important to research as the people who design orbiting telescopes and electron microscopes, but because software is intangible, they are rarely recognized in the same way.

We can't afford this any longer: as demand for their skills outside academia keeps growing, it is becoming harder each year to retain the people without whom modern science would grind to a halt. And while naming and recognizing their career path won't magically make stable funding appear, it will certainly help.

The campaign to get the RSE role recognized quickly gathered steam. Simon Hettrick led work on the topic for the Software Sustainability Institute, which resulted in coverage in the Times Higher Educational Supplement in the summer of 2013, and brought together a group of leading RSEs who ultimately set up the UK RSE Association. The concept of a national organisation was first discussed at the fringes of the 2013 Digital Research meeting, was tested on the community at a workshop in 2013 and started life proper in 2014 with the first Annual General Meeting of a UK Association for RSEs.

This group lobbied the key players at the UK research councils, where people like Susan Morrell and her team embedded a call into the UK's ARCHER national HPC infrastructure proposal and the EPSRC's "Software for the Future" calls. At a recent research councils' "future of e-infrastructure" meeting it was clear that the whole community now recognises that funding software is at least as important as hardware, and EPSRC recently announced a call for an RSE fellowship program to help people found RSE groups.

Many Software Carpentry instructors are RSEs, even if they're not yet called that. As the term and the role become more widely accepted in the UK, we hope that the idea will also catch on elsewhere so that people who devote themselves to the kinds of things we teach will get the recognition we all need them to get. If you'd like to know more, please join their mailing list and help them grow.

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