Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Analysis - Debt Owed to the Source Code Makers: Research

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Analysis - Debt Owed to the Source Code Makers: Research

Article excerpt

Academy risks research future by failing to give credit where it's due. Chris Parr reports.

Talented young technology professionals - indispensable to the successful pursuit of high-quality research - are deserting higher education for the private sector because the academy does not know how to reward them, experts claim.

Research software engineers, who work on research teams and are charged with designing, building and maintaining the programs required to carry out projects, have no recognised career path within universities, critics warn. So they end up leaving for more stability - and recognition - in industry.

The potential consequences for the academy are manifold. Without software engineers who understand how researchers operate and who can grasp the complicated concepts with which scholars grapple, the programs developed to process research data may be unfit for purpose, leading to questionable results and even discredited projects.

One illustrative example of this is the "Climategate" scandal in 2009, when hacked University of East Anglia emails were alleged to reveal that data had been manipulated to support the view that climate change is caused by human activity.

The professor at the heart of the scandal, Phil Jones, was criticised by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for not revealing details of the computer code used in his research - code created specifically for the project on which he was working.

"In Climategate, the software became contentious because it wasn't particularly transparent," explained Simon Hettrick, policy and communications lead at the Software Sustainability Institute (an organisation that advises on producing better research software) and a campaigner for greater recognition of engineers in this area.

"Because, like a lot of research software, there was a certain element of it being 'thrown together', it was difficult to understand exactly where the numbers came from, so the climate change deniers could question the results. Poor software can undermine research results."

One way to safeguard against the development of unsuitable software, he said, was to ensure that those who write the computer code are integrated and valued members of the research team: experts in the field in which they are working who also possess the necessary technological skills. Their labour must be viewed not only as a means to an end, Dr Hettrick said, but also as an important project output itself.

Such professionals already exist, but often have to masquerade as researchers because there is no specific job that relates to their skills. As a result they are expected to publish papers, with the sometimes considerable software output they produce earning few brownie points.

"The principal researchers know that without software engineers you don't have good software; and without good software you don't have good research. But there is no career path in universities for a person doing software engineering within a research group," Dr Hettrick said.

"They can't progress because the metric on which university career development is judged is not something that they produce often: academic papers."

Go out to go up

Dirk Gorissen was a research software engineer at the University of Southampton. Although his official job title was "research fellow" (another sign that the role has some way to go before it is a recognised position), he was responsible for developing software within the School of Engineering Sciences. …

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