James Hetherington set up the very first generalist university-based RSE group, at University College London (UCL), in 2012.
After completing his PhD at UCL Hetherington had worked first as a postdoctoral fellow, and then for several years in commercial software, in mid-sized companies and start-up businesses. When he returned to academia he brought that experience with him, and arrived at just the right moment, he says. “I got together with some colleagues to advocate for a central group of developers. And that happened to coincide with two things: several of the senior management of the university had a computational research background, and the university decided to reorganise IT to focus on support for teaching and research.” That reorganisation helped Hetherington’s “grassroot noises” to reach a receptive audience in management, and UCL set up a scientific programming team with Hetherington at its head.
“This all happened as the national RSE movement was taking off. In early 2012 I went to a meeting at a Software Sustainability Institute workshop where we all went in talking about ‘scientific programmers’ and came out talking about ‘research software engineers’,” he says. He renamed his own group to match and set about offering services across UCL’s research community.
It quickly became evident that there was potential for cost-recovery work as well as centrally funded projects, Hetherington says.
“I treated it like a startup. We did some free projects to demonstrate that people could trust us to be useful, and it turned out that our work was in extremely high demand,” he says. “There’s a lot of short-term work out there, and you can’t hire a good post doc for three or six months. And there’s money available where people have left projects, so having a central service was really effective,” Hetherington says.
The way to win over university management is to sell the benefits to research, Hetherington says.
“A lot of people argue for better jobs in scientific programming. Nobody cares! Tell the story of how the university is wasting grant money, how research councils are paying for work that’s being thrown away at the end of a project – that’s what will get attention,” he says.