The Case for Research Software Engineers

Academic research is increasingly digital, dependent on software tools for the data collection, analysis and visualisation underpinning modern scientific investigation. Software reliability and correctness is therefore essential for reproducible research regardless of the field of study. Successful production of such software requires specialist expertise such as that provided by Research Software Engineers: dedicated, professional developers who understand the particular requirements of scientific research.

Employing a specialist RSE can provide the following benefits:

  • Suitably trained and experienced software engineers typically produce more reliable code than self-taught or part-time programmers, contributing to research correctness and reproducibility
  • Specialist engineers can be expected to develop code that is well-structured and that follows current best-practice. Such software is more sustainable – being easier to develop, enhance and even commercialise. It also tends to be more reusable and attract a broader community of contributors.
  • RSEs are able to re-use relevant knowledge and tools, resulting in faster, more efficient software development
  • Developers who are well-versed in supporting research are aware of how to write performant software that scales appropriately. This is essential in order to accelerate the research process.

Centralising RSEs in a specialised, cross-functional team offers further advantages:

  • A centrally-contracted RSE can typically be engaged on a flexible basis i.e. part-time or at relatively short notice. This avoids both the need to employ a dedicated member of staff for work that doesn’t require an FTE, and the lengthly and challenging process of recruiting (and supervising) a specialist working a distinct, specialised discipline.
  • A central RSE team can provide long-term continuity as a result of shared skills and knowledge. The loss of a PDRA who is responsible for a particular piece of software often leads to issues with long-term maintenance and usability.
  • An RSE team member will typically be surrounded by specialists who can offer complementary advice and skills (such as high performance computing) which will further benefit data-intensive projects
  • RSE teams will normally have access to software development infrastructure unavailable to typical research groups. This includes secure source code repositories and automated QA systems which contribute to quality and durability.
  • Software project management is itself a specialist skill. Procuring software development services from a centralised team will typically include some degree of oversight and supervision that would otherwise have to be factored into a PI’s schedule.

There is an emerging consensus that better software produces better research, and funders are recognising that dedicated RSEs are best placed to deliver high-quality, sustainable software. Successful centralised RSE services exist at several research-intensive universities including Manchester, UCL and Southampton. Imperial College’s Research Software Engineering Team has been established to provide similar expertise to any project needing support or assistance with software development. Please use the contact details on our webpage to find out more or propose a collaboration.

For more information about the role of RSEs please see the recent State of the Nation Report for Research Software Engineers.

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