Lack of support for software engineering is holding back efforts to improve the reproducibility and openness of scientific research in the UK, a panel of MPs reliably said yesterday.

With data analytics at the heart of many cutting-edge scientific fields, the need for support from software engineers has never been greater – but it is sorely lacking, according to two researchers speaking to the parliamentary committee science and technology.

[Universities] think, “Oh, you’re a computer scientist. We have a note for that. How many people do you manage? Nothing? In this case it’s £ 42,000 a year ‘… and it just doesn’t work

Dr Jessica Butler, chief analyst and researcher at the University of Aberdeen, said universities were not created to support people like software developers or statisticians, who did not the ambition to be published in a “fancy” university journal.

“They want accurate statistics. They want to write code that works. They could easily work for a company and get paid six times as much and get promoted,” she said of the engineers.

Dr Ben Goldacre, director of the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, told MPs his team employed software engineers who could earn “very good six-figure salaries” in outside academia.

“They’re ready to cut their salary in half to work with me if it’s an interesting project. They’re not ready to cut it down to £ 30,000 or £ 40,000,” he said.

The problem was that university pay levels did not recognize the skills of software engineers, Goldacre added.

“A complete, commercial-grade software developer is a different skill set than the person who fixes your printer when it’s down. [Universities] think, “Oh, you’re a computer scientist. We have a note for that. How many people do you manage? Nothing? In this case, it’s £ 42,000 a year “… and it just doesn’t work,” he said.

Goldacre said his team had managed to “hack” the system by using research money to employ its own developer and create software tools that other academics can use, but the practice was not common.

“There is hardly any open competitive funding available anywhere for anyone who wants to build this type of middleman. [software] tools. They’re intellectually and academically creative, and incredibly powerful, and have a high impact in terms of the good they do, but there’s hardly any open competitive funding to do that kind of work, so that kind of work doesn’t. is not done, ”he said.

Software engineering in these teams was generally carried out as an “amateur activity” by scientists whose primary roles were elsewhere. While they are capable, they are not a substitute for skilled and experienced software engineers, he said.

“It’s the research software engineers who are at the heart of this new way of working. It takes people who are really good at writing software, not people who are researchers who have dabbled a bit here and there. should be independent and high status and a legitimately funded activity.

The problem of recruiting and retaining software engineers is linked to the so-called reproducibility crisis in science.

In their written evidence to the committee, the Software Sustainability Institute’s joint academic group said about 69 percent of research is produced with specialized software, which can range from short scripts solving a specific problem to complex spreadsheets. analyzing the data collected, to the millions of lines of code behind the Large Hadron Collider and the Square Kilometer Array.

“With many studies, research published without the underlying software used to produce the results is unverifiable,” the submission said.

Goldacre told the committee today, “The full true story of how you produce your results is the code you wrote, attached to the data you ran it on. But unfortunately our model of how we publish scientific results was built in the 19th century. “®


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