By Alys Brett, UK Atomic Energy Authority / UK RSE

In January 2018, leaders of Research Software Engineering groups, networks and initiatives from around the world gathered in London for the first ever International RSE Leaders workshop, organised by UK RSE. The event generated huge enthusiasm and progress towards the goal of improving access to software expertise in research by pooling knowledge, coordinating efforts and establishing collaboration.

International momentum

The last couple of years have seen fast-growing international interest in the RSE concept and the growth of RSE recognition and organisation in the the UK. Strong international representation at the first UK RSE conference led to the creation of the German and Dutch RSE associations. RSE leaders have been invited to speak on the subject at international conferences including in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and USA. RSE surveys have been run in several countries leading to valuable comparative data and providing an early focus for emerging communities.

At RSE17 a well-attended international discussion session was held. It demonstrated that a lot of enthusiasm for international collaboration and support exists amongst the people trying to build RSE capacity in their countries. Lots of useful information and ideas emerged in that 90 minutes of discussion and I felt that a lot could be achieved at a dedicated workshop.

The RSE leaders networking group in the UK has been providing mutual support to people running or trying to set up RSE groups or networks since 2015 and its members value the chance to share knowledge and collaborate with others in similar positions. Perhaps this could be even more powerful if it became an international network?

Getting the right people together

When the call for the EPSRC UK-USA RSE travel fund was published this seemed like an opportunity to kick-start the international workshop plans. We put out an email asking for interest from USA and had more than 20 responses within a few days. The award we won enabled five US RSE leaders to take part in the workshop. Further travel funding allowed two African attendees from Namibia and Sudan to make the trip.

The workshop was hosted at the Alan Turing Institute and places filled up quickly. 41 people from 11 countries took part, including two who gave talks remotely from New Zealand and Brazil, making it a truly international event (though next time we need to work on finding contacts from Asia).

The participants were people running or setting up research software groups, national networks or initiatives to improve access to software skills in research. What they all had in common was a determination to improve things and an enthusiasm to work together and get things done.

We asked all participants what they wanted from the workshop and the big themes that came up were making new connections, comparing notes with people working on similar things elsewhere and getting information, advice and evidence to influence the future of research software engineering.

An event shaped by the participants

Every participant spoke on the first day. The US travel fund recipients all gave a short talk about the groups or initiatives they are involved in leading, sharing the successes, challenges and open questions. Representatives of eight other countries gave an overview of the research software engineering landscape in their country or region. Everyone else gave a two minute lightning talk introducing themselves and raising a point, question or suggestion relating to the themes of the workshop. There were so many fascinating insights but I’ll mention just a couple of my personal highlights.

Samar Elsheikh told the story of the challenges and fantastic success of the first ever Software Carpentry workshop in Sudan - trading places for routers to ensure internet access and 551 applications for 40 places with women making up over 50% of participants!

Ian Cosden from Princeton spoke about the rapid growth of his new group which he is renaming the Research Software Engineering Group after interaction with the UK RSE community. Responses to his job adverts doubled when the posts were titled Research Software Engineer rather than Computational Research Applications Analyist. His description of the unique way the projects are funded and organised prompted a discussion about operating models and some envy from those with less institutional support.

The day ended with a session to decide on goals for the breakouts the following day. From some initial topics and suggestions, participants added ideas and indicated which they would like to work on. With plans in place, everyone headed to a nearby pub for the conference dinner.

Realising plans

The second day was devoted to getting things done with breakout sessions in “speed blogging” style - discussion followed by drafting of concrete outputs.

There was a focus on improving RSE international web presence and communication. This international RSE website was created as well as one for the fledgling Nordic RSE association. Plans were made for future collaboration between RSE leaders with further meetings or sessions planned at relevant upcoming conferences. A Wikipedia entry for Research Software Engineering was written and participants contributed to the effort to establish a research computing Q&A site on Stack Exchange - both of these efforts are seeking further contributors. The UK RSE Slack has been dropped the “UK” branding to serve as an international discussion platform.

One group tackled the desire to share resources to help make the case for the value of RSEs by designing and setting up a repository for an international RSE “evidence bank” (watch this space). Several discussion groups drafted blog posts and the first of these is now published: How to set up a national RSE association. A survey on RSE group operating models is currently open to gather information that can be shared to help people start and grow RSE groups.

Inspiration for the future

It was an intense two days and the atmosphere was friendly, ambitious and practical. The feedback from emails and tweets (see #intrse) indicates that many participants got a lot out of the experience:

“I got home last night and almost couldn’t sleep because I was still so excited about the whole event. I feel that I learned so much and got great ideas on how to tackle certain issues we have within our center. It was for me one of the most inspiring events I’ve attended.”

There is continued collaboration between many of the RSE leaders who took part in the workshop and a definite sense that the momentum behind the international RSE movement is building. I’m excited to see where the enthusiasm and talent of this community takes us in the coming years.

The organisers were: Alys Brett (UKAEA), Robert Haines (University of Manchester), James Hetherington (The Alan Turing Institute), Simon Hettrick (Software Sustainability Institute), Mark Turner (Newcastle University), Chris Woods (University of Bristol), Claire Wyatt (University of Southampton)

The outputs of the workshop were presented in a talk and poster for the EPSRC / SSI workshop on the impact of international research software collaboration.