Research software is a critical enabler of research and a key driver of innovation and economic growth.
Most researchers state that their work would simply not be possible without the use of software. Despite this, people who develop and maintain research software are not well incentivised and rewarded. Career paths are lacking in research software, and research software skills are often highly desired and better compensated in private industry.
As part of developing its Research Software Agenda for Australia, the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) commissioned a survey last year on the scale and distribution of software engineering or development capability within research organisations in Australia.
The survey was conducted by the ARDC, in collaboration with Dr Michelle Barker and Dr Markus Buchhorn who wrote the report analysing the results. The survey received 70 responses from the Australian research community, primarily managers of research software capability groups, or individual research software developers who were not part of a larger group.
The resulting report provides an insight into this vital capability underpinning research.
Dr Tom Honeyman, Program Leader for the ARDC’s Research Software Agenda, said, “Now that we know more about research software capability in Australia, we can work with the research community to develop and value those working in research software to ensure we can meet the future demand and maintain our world-class research sector.”
What is research software capability?
Research software engineering capability is defined as people with computing skills who support researchers in developing software tools, which help to generate research outcomes.
Researchers and students often do software development or engineering tasks, like coding, documentation or software maintenance, although it may not be a formal part of their job description.
Key findings of the survey
- The report estimates 6,000 people are working in roles that provide software development, engineering and maintenance (4000 funded, 2000 unfunded) for research. These figures are conservative estimates based on significant under-reporting.
- 46% of respondents perceived that the skills of their research software capability they manage were adequate.
- 78% of respondents answered “yes” or “maybe” to a question on whether these personnel had access to mechanisms to improve their skills.
- 80 different job titles were listed in survey responses as commonly used for these staff (available as an appendix).
- In comparison to international examples, Australian research organisations have limited policies at the institutional level on research software and the capability that supports this. Funding arrangements for research software personnel were also surveyed, finding that only 33% of these staff have permanent employment.
The report states:
“The survey results help the Australian research community understand the extent to which our research software engineering capability may be meeting Australia’s research needs.”
“The analysis indicates there is a sizable and growing community research software support capability that needs to be developed, retained, sufficiently skilled and valued.
“However, the responses to questions such as numbers of staff, sufficiency of staffing, and intention to recruit indicate the community is not as well-served as it could or should be.”
As the report states, research software is vital for Australian research to remain world-class.
“Technology is always advancing, with advances such as quantum and exascale computing set to enable a higher level of performance in research computing that has the potential to rapidly advance research impact. It is crucial that the human capital element of research software infrastructure also achieves the step changes needed to ensure there are personnel to support this technology.”
The importance of nurturing research software capability was reflected in the Australian Government-commissioned 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap Exposure Draft, which stated:
“Software engineering is a highly specialised field; most researchers do not have the required expertise or capacity to develop software and do the necessary coding themselves in addition to conducting their research. For this reason, software infrastructure needs a dedicated workforce.”
A Research Software Agenda for Australia
In mid-2021, the ARDC released its draft Research Software Agenda for Australia. One of the 3 goals of the agenda is to sustain research software. Creating and nurturing sustainable research software capability is key to this goal.
Tom said, “We are organising a national forum for those who manage research software capability to discuss the questions arising from the report. Please register your interest in participating by filling out this form.”
The ARDC is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support national digital research infrastructure for Australian researchers.
Written by Jo Savill, ARDC. Reviewed by Dr Tom Honeyman (ARDC), Dr Andrew Treloar (ARDC).