The Nordic Research Software Engineer Initiative

Thor Wikfeldt, PDC

Published May 26, 2018

Scientific software is used by research groups across a wide range of disciplines, and much of that software is developed within the research groups themselves. In most cases Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers are tasked with writing the software, although sometimes dedicated scientific programmers are recruited to larger research groups. When it comes to high performance computing (HPC) projects in Sweden, the Swedish National Infrastructure for Computing (SNIC) centres employ application experts who can provide long-term support to the researchers to assist them with developing software and deploying it on HPC resources. However, while the expertise and the demand for advanced application and software support exists, the relevant experts and researchers are often disconnected and unaware of each other. As a result, there are many disparate specialised clusters, with little exchange of technical expertise, and researchers outside the HPC community lack a common entry point to seek professional advice and assistance on writing scientific software.

The environment for research software development around the Nordic countries was discussed in a speed-blogging session at the all- hands meeting of the Nordic e-Infrastructure Collaboration (NeIC) held in early 2018 in Norway. This resulted in a published blog post where various challenges faced by research software developers were identi ed, and possible ways to improve them were outlined. Following up on these discussions, a group of enthusiasts gathered in a conference centre outside Stockholm and decided to launch a Nordic Research Software Engineer (RSE) network, which was inspired by similar networks that have been established and are presently thriving in the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and Germany.

But what is an RSE, and what is the point of creating a network to connect people doing RSE work across the Nordic countries? RSE stands for Research Software Engineer, a term chosen after careful deliberation in the UK (where the first RSE network was started) to marry aspects of software engineering with academic research. Some RSEs start off as researchers who spend time developing software to make progress with their research. Because they enjoy this work and have invested time and effort in developing specialist skills, these researchers continue to focus on software and its use in research. Others start off from a more conventional software development background and are drawn to research by the challenge of using software to further research. This combination of skills is extremely valuable for science, but RSEs often lack a formal place in the academic system. This means there is no easy way to recognize their contribution, to reward them, or to represent their views. Without a name, it is difficult for people to rally around a cause, so the term Research Software Engineer was created. The Nordic-RSE network will now start working to raise awareness of the importance of this role for research and to bring the RSE community together across the Nordic countries by organizing conferences, workshops and online forums.

As a first step towards building this community, the Nordic RSE initiative is conducting a short five-minute long survey on the situation regarding research software development in the Nordic countries. If you write research software, then this survey is for you! To participate in the survey, please follow the link: nordic-rse.org/survey. And if you have colleagues or friends who write research software, please forward this information to them! To be informed about the results of this survey and other items of interest to research software developers, visit nordic-rse.org, follow the initiative on Twitter ( twitter.com/nordic_rse) and/or sign up for the Nordic RSE mailing list. Finally, if you would like to join us in building the community, please read nordic-rse.org/join.

This article is based on text from nordic-rse.org and neic.no/news/2018/05/04/building-a-community.

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