Pictured: A COVID-19-compatible “group photo” of most of the workshop participants.
Organizers: Stephan Druskat (de-RSE), Radovan Bast (Nordic RSE), Ian A. Cosden (US-RSE), Anne Claire Fouilloux (Nordic RSE), Simon J. Hettrick (Society of Research Software Engineering, UK), Daniel S. Katz (US-RSE), Johan Philips (beRSE), Peter van Heusden (African RSSE), Ben van Werkhoven (NL-RSE), Claire Wyatt (Society of Research Software Engineering, UK)*
In 2018, the first International RSE Leaders Workshop took place in London/UK. Amongst other successes, it saw the foundation of the Nordic RSE community and helped improve access to software expertise in research. Since then, the international RSE community has seen a lot of progress, with new associations being formed, new national and international RSE conferences (RSEConUK 2019, deRSE19, NL-RSE19, Nordic RSE conference, beRSE Research Software Developers Day) being run, and informal international collaboration strongly increasing. These developments led to an internationally run online replacement for the RSE conferences that had to be cancelled due to COVID-19: SORSE - the international Series of Online Research Software Events.
To provide a discussion and knowledge exchange forum for the new generation of RSE associations and foster further collaboration between them, and to help new RSE communities form and establish themselves, we organized and ran the 2nd International RSE Leaders Workshop in September 2020. It was originally planned as an in-person event to take place in Oslo, Norway, but was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This move to an online event meant that informal networking and social sessions were harder to achieve or run, we had to take time zones into account, and had to shorten workshop days to avoid “video conference fatigue”. On the other hand, it also meant that we didn't have to draw up a budget and involve sponsors for catering, travel bursaries, etc. Additionally, it allowed us to introduce a two-week break between workshop days that was dedicated to asynchronous collaboration in working groups.
The workshop was run over three days on 15, 16 and 30 September.
After some discussion, we decided to run synchronous workshop days that start around midday in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This allowed participants from Europe, Africa, and the Americas to take part at more or less humane times of the day, but it also impeded participation from Asia, Australia, and western parts of the Americas.1
All in all, the workshop had 39 participants from 13 counties on five continents, and included delegates from eight national or multinational RSE associations: de-RSE, Society of RSE (UK), NL-RSE, US-RSE, Nordic RSE, African RSSE, beRSE, and AUS/NZ RSE. Even though they do not have formal RSE associations, individuals from Argentina, Colombia, France, Canada and Spain also joined the workshop. All participants agreed to follow the workshop Code of Conduct.
As we wanted the workshop to focus on the needs of the participants, we asked them to prepare and share a video in which they introduced themselves, and named ideas or questions they had around the establishment or operation of national or multinational RSE initiatives, or collaboration between them, or a concrete issue they wanted to solve during the workshop. These videos were discussed in an icebreaker session at the start of the first workshop day, presented in summary in the plenary, and then transformed into pitches for groups that would form to work on the realization of ideas or solutions to issues. After those pitches were presented we took some time to discuss overlaps and merge ideas and groups so that no effort would be duplicated.
Before group work commenced on the second workshop day, Neil Chue Hong, director of the Software Sustainability Institute and Senior Research Fellow at the EPCC, gave an invited talk entitled “Does Research Software Engineering have a diversity crisis, and what can we do?“ which was well-suited to stop us in our tracks and reconsider the work ahead. The numbers Neil presented in his talk clearly suggest that, yes, RSE does have a diversity crisis. At least, thanks to Neil’s work together with Caroline Jay and Jeremy Cohen on a diversity-focused analysis of RSE survey data (paper forthcoming), we can measure it. But more importantly, there are impediments not only to diversity, but also to inclusivity and equity, that cannot be measured quantitatively: the demographic data does not speak to, for example, microbarriers that diminish access and equity. Throughout the talk, participants had the opportunity to explore these through sharing their respective experiences. And there is no easy fix for the diversity, inclusivity, and equity crises in RSE: it’s not a checklist task, and it’s easy to get wrong. Instead of focusing on “areas of concern” (essentially framing diversity/inclusivity/equity as a problem to be solved, rather than a goal to be achieved), or using people as proxies for some “category” of “other”, we are encouraged to value lived experiences and “champion exceptional people from all walks of life”, for example in hiring, but also as communities. In order to avert continuation of the crises, we should embed diversity, inclusivity and equity as goals within our communities and projects, continue to listen and learn, and take action where we can. In this spirit, the working groups were asked to reflect where these values can be embedded in their work. And a discussion at the end of the third workshop day seemed to suggest that there is agreement within the international RSE community as represented at the workshop that action should be taken to ensure that these values are an integral part of RSE communities. To dive deeper into the issues and the things we each can do that were presented in the talk, have a look at the slides (https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.12955094.v4), and watch the recorded launch event of SORSE - the Series of Online Research Software Events with related talks from Drs. Kari Jordan and Mariann Hardey (https://sorse.github.io/programme/kickoff/).
The working groups focused on continued organization of international collaboration between associations and the creation of a common platform and entry point, gathering data on RSEs and RSE groups, and the creation of common resources for Research Software Engineering in general, and individual RSEs, (institutional) RSE groups and new RSE communities in particular. During the last day of the workshop, all groups presented their work. A brief summary of the work of each group follows, and the groups will also publish more detailed blog posts over the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
Summary of the working groups
Regular meetings of international RSE leaders
This group worked on a proposal for more organized and continuous collaboration between established RSE associations. As mentioned above, new national and multinational associations have formed over the last few years, and there is great value in these organizations talking to each other regularly, exchanging ideas and knowledge, discussing issues, solving conflicts, and bringing together efforts. To further foster the creation of new associations, these meetings will also be open to champions of nascent RSE communities.
A home for the international RSE community
The website researchsoftware.org is a product of the first International RSE Leaders Workshop in 2018, and it should become the home for the international RSE community as such. This group worked on ideas to enrich the content of the website with structured information on Research Software Engineers and to make it generally more useful to worldwide RSE communities.
Find out and learn what it takes to be an RSE
There is no one job description for RSEs; we come in at least as many flavours as chili sauce or research questions. This makes it hard for people who are new to Research Software Engineering to get started. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a structured resource to help them achieve that? There are, in fact, a few general strata along which information can be organized: technology that RSEs can employ, skills that are useful to have as RSE, and research-related questions that RSEs should be able to consider. There already are a vast number of resources pertaining to this or that aspect out there, so instead of creating yet another resource for RSEs, this group has worked to provide entry points and a structure to the available information.
→ Read the detailed blog post!
Who are we ...
You may have come across the international RSE survey, which provides our communities with necessary data to better understand who/where/what we are and do, which in turn allows us to model our associations and communities around the needs (and wants) of the RSEs we bring together, represent, and advocate for. The invited talk by Neil Chue Hong (see above) is a clear example of how having these data can help to build even better communities for the future. This group has issued a call to all interested parties to help set up the next edition of the survey.
… and what do we know about our places of work?
Now that (at least in some places) institutions are (getting) hip to the necessity of RSEs’ work, RSE groups grow larger, offer more career options, or are being newly formed. Because this is often pioneering work, there may not be an easily accessible role model for running an RSE group successfully. Yet this knowledge exists, but it is spread over existing RSE groups. So in a somewhat similar fashion to the group working on structured information for individual RSEs, this group set out to gather and provide existing knowledge, and plans to enrich it through means of a set of interviews and/or a survey.
Communities at the centre of Research Software Engineering
Some workshop groups have focused on individual RSEs, some on RSE groups, and some on RSE associations, but we know that the primordial soup where all of these were born, and the glue that keeps them together, is the RSE community. RSEs come together in communities of all kinds and sizes already, but there are still far too many places where RSE communities simply don’t exist. To change this, we need to know where to start, how to continue, and who our members may be. Communities often don’t just exist, they are set up and fostered through activism. At some point, they may need a structure, or governance, and may benefit from formalization. And they should help people identify as RSEs and give them a home. Similar to RSE groups, the knowledge needed to do all that may already be there, but it needs to be found, enriched, structured and presented.
“So I’ve had this idea …”
If you couldn’t make it to the workshop, there are still ways to contribute to the international projects that are under way, or start new ones: The forthcoming blog posts from the working groups will name an option to get in touch with the group, and if you have an idea you want to work on, please join the channel #international on the UK RSE community’s Slack chat! Details on how to join the chat can be found on the website of the Society for Research Software Engineering.
What has the 2nd International RSE Leaders Workshop 2020 achieved?
We think: quite a lot. Most obviously, there are the results, preliminary results, and the ongoing work in the working groups. If all groups finish their work and produce the intended outcomes, the international RSE community will have won fantastic new resources, communication channels, and a platform to facilitate both.
Less visibly, the workshop has facilitated growing and consolidating the international community as such. At an in-person event, this would probably have happened during lunch breaks, in the coffee queue, and during a workshop dinner or similar. The solutions we have tried to simulate those online don’t seem to have made much of a difference, sometimes due to technical difficulties in Gather.town, sometimes because meeting someone in a video call is just not the same as chatting to them over a hot (or cold) drink. Instead, we think that a lot of networking has happened in the working groups, both during the workshop days and the asynchronous work phase.
As Peter van Heusden mentioned in the concluding discussion on the last day of the workshop, the workshop has also implicitly drawn a “state of the RSE world”. This is still very much incomplete, due to both the small size of the workshop and the fact that some parts of the world were excluded due to the choices we had to make when moving online. But the composition of participants and their experiences and interests show that things have changed since the first workshop. And it will be interesting to see the changes that will happen before the next workshop.
And ast but not least, it is especially exciting that participants from Argentina, Colombia, France, Canada and Spain want to start new RSE communities or associations in their respective regions! This has led, for example, to the creation of a dedicated Slack channel (in the Society for RSE's Slack team) for the community in Latin America: #rse_latam. If you are an RSE from this region, or interested in how Research Software Engineering works in this part of the world, feel free to join it!
Stay tuned for the forthcoming blog posts from the working groups, and perhaps see you at the next International RSE Leaders Workshop!