The Research Software Group at the University Southampton was set up by Simon Hettrick and John Robinson in 2015 after an exploratory email found support for the idea among research groups, and “we emailed some established contacts and asked them to tell their friends about the potential service”, says Hettrick, “and the response was more work than we could possibly conduct with our small team”.
The group does not receive institutional support from the university for its staff members which Hettrick says “makes finances a bit of a headache, because 100% of costs have to be recovered from the projects we conduct”. However, the group benefits from being co-located with the Software Sustainability Institute, which means staff can be swapped onto Institute work if they experience a break in contract.
After getting a few projects under their belt, the team approached senior university staff with the RSE concept and showed them examples of the group’s work. “We wanted to show what the group could do before we approached senior management. They were interested, especially in our training and community development, and we received freedom to operate,” Hettrick says.
Two years later the group has earned enough through its work to hire an extra RSE, bringing the team to four. Feedback from research groups has been incredibly positive, and regular Software Carpentry workshops have trained over 300 University of Southampton researchers in the basics of software engineering in only a couple of years. “We’re particularly happy with the community of researcher-developers that we’ve set up in Southampton. Our last event attracted 110 researchers who want help with their software. It’s very early days but I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of growth in that community.”
Hettrick hopes to grow the team further. “Our main problem is that there is far more work available than we can staff, which means we have to be selective in the projects we choose. Southampton could easily support a team of around 10 RSEs, not just conducting projects but training researchers too” says Hettrick.