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RSE: supporting software or supporting equality?

Richard Darst

Research Software Engineering: it's obviously about software, right? It could be, but I believe we can adopt a broader viewpoint. We have all heard countless times about the systematic factors affecting inequality in science, but how much does access to computing, or computing training, contribute to this? In this talk, I will first outline some factors contributing to inequality of computing which I have noticed after years of supporting researchers. I will relate this to the services which can be provided by RSEs, and present a vision for addressing this by developing our own skills and promoting RSE services to our institutions.


Questions and comments

  • Perhaps getting sympathy from more traditional professionals in academia might not be easy because the RSE career path is not nearly (yet?) as "hard-coded" as that for, say, a professor.

    • I agree with this. As an RSE, will I just need to leave academia sooner or later as all other "non professors" or do I just become the old IT staff member? insert steve buscemi meme "hello fellow kids"
    • [name=a] A lot of people do leave, like me, but I don't think that's necessarily a problem. There needs to be people industry to work with RSEs and a goal I'd like to see is a good industry/RSE collaboration with RSEs being the people speaking the common language in partnerships. Quick plug for my talk on Wednesday containing some information on both sides of industry partnerships!
  • Apprenticeship can also happen by reading how others work (read their code, watch their code review, watch the tools they use)

    • [name=speaker] yes! I've learned plenty by reading the right blogs, for example.
  • Suggestion: using equality of opportunity for competent knowledge/skill rather than simply saying equality. e.g. we want to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone to be able to acquire knowledge rather than equalizing everyone's knowledge in a certain field.

    • [name=speaker] Yes, that's correct. We can't make the same outcome, but hopefully people have the same opportunity, without implicit prerequisites that some people don't have.
  • What is your take on implications of cultural differences on the topic of "supporting equality of opportunity". for example, many of your ideas seem to be easier to apply in a collectivist society as opposed to an individualist society which probably most of the Nordic could be categorized as.

    • [name=speaker] This is not my speciality, but I think most of the points I make come about because we are very individualist and assume that everyone can make their own way. That breaks down when not everyone has the network to do that. Perhaps you could even say, those who think they succeed as individualists often happen to have these implicit networks that make that possible, yet doesn't get recognized.
  • So true! I learned so much when sitting down with a RSE or with a software engineer in their offices. We had really good sessions. The software engineer did not have a background in physics, I did not have a background in computer science. But I think we made a pretty good team learning from each other. No chance to do this in the open space where I had my office.

    • Indeed. Learned so much by somebody telling/showing me: "hey look at this cool thing I found out"
  • Re computer skills, I also notice some researchers seem shy to share the code they wrote because they think it's "sloppy". I always try to remind them that programming is a secondary skill to them (as it was for many RSEs)!

    • Important to consider code a 'group ownership', to try and take the personal pain out of showing code. Code reviews are great to learn this kind of separation of person from code. You critique the code not the author!
  • Suggestion for a substitude to the "academic vs vocational skills": actionable vs non-actionable skills. The latter creates less stereotypical or stigmatic bias against the academia or likewise against the industry/practice. moreover, actionable and none-actionable skills could occur on both sides, it's just that academia is more prune to it since there is more room for theoretical material.

    • [name=speaker] Thanks, nice idea. We'll have to make sure that they terms are also clear, without other elaboration, but this is a good start.
  • I do wonder if we should call ourself "engineers" if we don't really have the solid technical skils I associate with an Engineer.

    • At Lund University physicists etc are just hired as "research engineers" because they are not hired as scientists, postdocs, professors, but they have a permanent position. Here engineer seems to be just job description.
  • I like the idea of making services fairly available for making/contributing to equality. On the other hand, I have seen some cases that distributing time and efforts of RSEs to one project/researcher could be really time consuming and at some point, researchers/research projects need to buy-out such a service by RSEs. Then the "rich gets richer" happens again. How to tackle this type of problems?

    • [name=speaker] We can't solve everything, so there is a tiered system: some basic resources for everyone, long-term is paid. It's up to us to convince our funders to make the best balance.
  • What about publishing code, papers and credits? Should a RSE be included as an author in papers wher he(r) contributions are crucial for the result?

    • Only if it makes a difference to the RSE. Hopefully he has no pressure to publish. Maybe the RSE team/program should be attributed.
    • I strongly think that if code is fundamental to the results, i.e. if you're modelling some physical process, the author should be credited. After all, that person is contributing to the quality of the results.
    • I argue he/she should be included!
    • [name=speaker] When you realize there can be separate software authorship from paper authorship, there is more flexibility to do the right thing in each case. Is the RSE doing creative work about the science or the software? Is the software the science?
      • [name=w] This is a good point, maybe the CFF initiative can help with that.
  • I think some universities are still in the awkward situation that they do not acknowledge the importance of RSE. Would be good to find ways to highlight such importance with the help of the RSE network.

    • There are various sources of material about this online, and was proposed to be a topic of this event or the conference next year. Hopefully someone can link it here
    • [name=a] The UK-RSE community have been and are still struggling with this but it's improving a lot over time. Pointing Nordic Universities at the UK and demonstrating what has been happening there demonstrates what RSEs can bring, why they are required, and the path to follow.
  • I saw a brief note about gender balance. Like to point out that it is nice when everyone feel welcome and equally participating, not only male and female but also non-binary.

    • thank you for pointing this out. Indeed we need to improve this to create a welcoming environment for everybody.