US-RSE: Supporting the Research Software Engineer
Almost all research today depends on software: Over 90% of researchers across fields in the UK and US say they use research software, 2/3 say they couldn’t do their research without it, and between 1/4 and 1/2 develop software as part of their research. 80% of papers in 3 months of Nature issues mentioned software, averaging more than 6 packages per paper.
However, the importance of research software work is not widely recognized. Research software developers and maintainers often struggle for professional recognition and stable careers, particularly in academia. Those who develop software as part of their research typically aren’t recognized for this part of their work and don’t have good incentives to maintain and share it.
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In response to these concerns around the individuals developing research software, the term “Research Software Engineer” (RSE) was coined in the UK in 2012. Since then, the movement to use and recognize this term and its associated work has become global (particularly in the Global North) and continues to expand, with new associations starting in South America, Asia, and Africa. In the United States, the US Research Software Engineer Association (US-RSE) was created in early 2018 by a handful of motivated individuals passionate about advancing RSE work as a recognized professional career. US-RSE is a community-driven, grassroots organization. In the almost four years that have followed, membership in US-RSE has increased to over 900, growing at a steady rate of about 25-30 new members per month.
This momentum reflects the critical contributions RSEs make to research in all fields and the desire of RSEs to form a community to support these often underrecognized roles. The recognition and incentives needed for RSEs to have substantial and desirable professional careers have not yet fully emerged in industry, academia, or government.
What is a Research Software Engineer?
US-RSE has chosen a broad and inclusive definition of RSEs, encompassing those who regularly use expertise in programming to advance research. This includes researchers who spend a significant amount of time programming, full-time software engineers writing code to solve research problems, and those somewhere in-between. We aspire to apply the skills and practices of software development to research to create more robust, manageable, and sustainable research software.
Research Software Engineers exist in every corner of the research community, from computer science to math to physics to engineering to sociology to humanities, and everything in between. And the ranks are growing. As the awareness of the importance of software engineering best practices to the sustainability, reproducibility, usability, and performance of research code increases, so does the need and demand for RSEs. While many RSEs have a formal computer science background, and some may be members of the IEEE Computer Society, software development occurs in all disciplines and RSEs have widely varied backgrounds. It’s often this varied background that makes RSEs uniquely capable of developing specific research software.
The increase in RSEs and awareness of the RSE role are huge steps in the right direction, but we still have much work to do to raise the RSE concept to the level of a true profession. US-RSE and the global RSE community are working on a number of challenges, including:
- How do we encourage funders to support the development and maintenance of research software, in turn supporting projects that hire RSEs?
- How do we ensure that software is commonly cited, rewarding RSEs for their work?
- How do we increase reproducibility, including via computational artifacts, and what is the role of RSE in creating and verifying such artifacts?
- How do we encourage universities, national laboratories, and other hiring institutions to create and support long-term, stable, career paths for RSEs?
- What skills do RSEs need, and how do they gain them?
Building an RSE Association
We at US-RSE are a community of volunteers working together on these challenges, as well as other activities to benefit the RSE community and its members, both within the US and collaboratively with other global RSE associations. We are building a connective, supportive, and diverse community of individuals from universities, laboratories, knowledge institutes, companies, and other enterprises. We advocate for our members, raise awareness of the importance of the RSE role, and are actively working to improve diversity within the RSE profession.
Our activities include:
- Monthly community calls on topics pertinent to RSEs
- Annual virtual workshops with talks and breakout discussions
- Bi-monthly newsletters
- A podcast
- A growing list of resources on our website
- An active Slack workspace
- RSE job openings listed on our website and promoted on our Slack workspace
- Early career panels
- Conference presentations, panels, and workshops
- Working groups that have organically formed around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Education & Training
We welcome all (including individuals outside the US) who support our organizational mission, especially those who identify as RSEs, those interested in an RSE career, and those who may not be RSEs but consider themselves RSE “allies” or manage individuals in RSE roles.
Want to learn more? Want to listen in on the conversation? Want to get involved and be part of the movement? Want to create a new activity? Join us!
Researchers Play a Crucial Role
If you use research software but aren’t an RSE, there are many things you can do to support the people whose primary job it is to contribute to the software you rely on:
- Cite the software you use to produce your work.
- When your collaboration includes an RSE, make sure that they are a co-author on collaboration papers.
- Find opportunities to formally recognize the contributions of the people developing software in your field.
- Help educate your institution’s leadership about the importance of research software and RSEs for your research, and ask them to establish and support RSE services and meaningful positions.
- Acknowledge the value of skilled software developers by using the term “Research Software Engineer” or “RSE” to raise awareness and bring the role to the forefront of computational research.
- And you are welcome to join US-RSE too!
Written collectively by the members of the 2021 US-RSE steering committee:
- Daniel S. Katz, Chief Scientist, NCSA, Associate Research Professor, CS & ECE & iSchool, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Jeffrey C. Carver, Professor of Computer Science, University of Alabama
- Ian Cosden, Director, Research Software Engineering for Computational and Data Science at Princeton University
- Charles Ferenbaugh, R&D Scientist, Los Alamos National Laboratory
- Christina Maimone, Research Data Services Lead, Northwestern University
- Sandra Gesing, Senior Scientist, Scientific Outreach and DEI Lead, Discovery Partner Institute, University of Illinois Chicago
- Chris Hill, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Julia Damerow, Arizona State University
- Lance Parsons, Scientific Programmer, Princeton University