Software is vital to effective research – indeed it’s fundamental to the aims of organisations like HDR UK that seek to advance healthcare through the analysis of large-scale data. This is why an emerging professional group – Research Software Engineers (RSEs) – are so important to our common future.

In academia we are the people who bring together an expertise in programming with an intricate understanding of research. RSEs work with researchers to understand the problems they face then develop, maintain and extend software to provide the answers.

We make modern research happen. And it’s an increasingly exciting career option.This year HDR UK sponsored the RSE Midlands annual conference, underlining the organisation’s recognition of the value of our role. The event attracted 50 people, mostly from universities, from a wide area including Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester, Warwick, Coventry, Cambridge and Sheffield. This tells a story in itself about the number and variety of institutions where RSEs are proving to be a vital part of the research drive.

Career paths

The conference was partly about networking, but it was also a chance to focus on key topics – for example there was discussion about the need for better, clearer career paths and wider recognition of research software engineering as a field in its own right.

As someone who has been involved in the community for six or seven years, and carrying out HDR UK-funded projects for around half that, I have known this is the case. And while some institutions have made impressive progress in recognising this – which is to everyone’s benefit – others have a distance to go.

The conference was also a chance to highlight what people around the Midlands are doing around health data and what we can do in future. Among the key speakers was Krishna Gokhale (HDR UK and University of Birmingham) who talked about the Dexter automated epidemiology platform.

For RSEs the interest was partly in what the Dexter does, but more to understand how a team went about approached a particular problem – the engineering perspective of challenges and solutions. What did it take to build Dexter? What were the problems? How was the team structured? Where next? What about funding?

These are big and practical questions that allow people to think about how they might handle their own projects in future.

Building ecosystems

A member of our Nottingham team, Tom Giles, spoke about Building an Open Ecosystem for Data Discovery though Academic and Industrial Collaboration. He made specific reference to the CO-CONNECT initiative that helped scientists across the UK more easily access the data they needed to develop COVID 19 therapies.

For RSEs it was a project we can learn from to build for the future. Infrastructures and eco-systems are fundamental to the success of future research. The thrust of Tom’s talk was about building a portfolio of tools within a team. Unlike many engineers, we are often working with lots of different researchers and on short projects that might have no relation to each other. So this is a good example of where RSEs are themselves the researchers, helping to set and deliver the research agenda.

As research software engineering establishes itself as a field in its own right it is increasingly clear that it provides exciting opportunities on the frontline of healthcare development. If you are the sort of person who wants a career that has a direct and positive impact on the world, it should be high on your list for consideration.