Fixing problems in science (for white men)

Have you seen the Software Sustainability Institute’s petition on Change.org?

We must accept that software is fundamental to research, or we will lose our ability to make groundbreaking discoveries.

The petition advocates for cultural and structural changes in how science treats software and the people who create it. It says that science has a software development problem. It doesn’t say why science has this problem, but several of the points in the petition hint at the problem.

1. We want software to be treated as a valuable research object which befits the same level of investment and effort as any other aspect of the research infrastructure.

2. We want researchers to be encouraged to spend time learning about software, because the value of that knowledge is understood to improve research.

3. We want the people who develop research software to be recognised and rewarded for their invaluable contribution to research.

4. We want a research environment in which software-reliant projects are encouraged to hire software developers, rather than having to hide these valuable staff members in anonymous postdoctoral positions.

5. Ultimately, we want the research community to recognise software’s fundamental role in research.

I was initially thrilled to read it. Just a few months ago, I’d pressed a colleague with ties to Software Carpentry (now under the SSI’s umbrella) to do just this sort of thing. I don’t disagree with any of these goals. I think implementing them could be great for science. But I don’t want to sign this petition.

Tenure track positions are the only permanent positions in academic science. Pretty much everything else is temporary – lab technicians, managers, field crews are all typically short term and soft money positions. Most positions in a lab are officially trainee positions, regardless of the expertise and experience required for those positions. People jump from project to project and study system to system. Not only do they leave valuable knowledge behind every time they leave a lab group (along with mysterious files and incomprehensible lab notebooks), they also leave behind their lives. The only valued output is papers (and grants to some extent). Data curation, sample storage, lab organization and safety and other very important things get sacrificed all too often.

We want to fix software development in science because the current method of software development means our science is often wrong and unreproducible and people are treated like crap. Well, our current method of doing science means our science is often wrong and unreproducible and people are treated like crap.

So, if it’s all broken, why not start with fixing software development? Well, because I think it has the potential to make the diversity problem in science worse. Programming is dominated by white men for a lot of reasons that I will not talk about here and that bias is likely to be perpetuated within the sciences. If we approach this problem at its structural roots, we help people across the board in science. If we approach this from software development, we help white men disproportionately.

I think there’s a lot of momentum behind reforming software development in science and I would like to see that conversation expand to include some of the things I’ve brought up here because if we fix software development and not the reasons software development in science is broken in the first place, we still won’t have reproducible science and the only people with better jobs in science will be (mostly) white guys.

I’ve taken a stab at some different petition wording that I think would address the SSI’s desires, improve science, and make the lives of non-TT scientists better. What do you think? I’m not a lab scientist and have no experience as a post-doc, so I had to go from second-hand knowledge there.

 

1. We want software, data sets, and research protocols to be treated as valuable research objects which befit the same level of investment and effort as any other aspect of the research infrastructure.

2. We want researchers to be encouraged to spend time learning about software, data management, and reproducibility because the value of that knowledge is understood to improve research.

3. We want the people who develop non-paper research objects to be recognised and rewarded for their invaluable contribution to research.

4. We want a research environment in which scientists are hired as staff (preferably long-term) rather than hidden in anonymous postdoctoral positions.

5. Ultimately, we want the research community to recognise the fundamental role of non-PI researchers and non-paper research objects in research.

 

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3 thoughts on “Fixing problems in science (for white men)

  1. This is an interesting post, however, I find it a bit complicated to make this about race and feminism, without going into these facts at all.

    In my opinion, I have to say that the rewording of the petition is missing some very important points of the initial proposition. While I see the point that software dev should be diversified, I also think that in the end, actual developers (of whatever race or gender) should be employed to support scientists and work hand in hand. I’m not sure how these issues could be adressed simultaneously.

    • Academic science’s and the tech industry’s issues with racism and sexism are well covered elsewhere.

      I agree that there is a role for professional software developers in academic science, but I don’t think we should focus on creating full time software development positions in academic science separately from larger structural employment reforms because it wouldn’t fix the problems it sets out to solve, among other reasons.

      I didn’t really talk about what we might do to increase diversity in academic science, or how the things I propose here might contribute to that (or not! Without strong support for underrepresented groups and anti-bias work, we may just end up reinforcing the status quo with these new nice (theoretical) jobs). But, I reiterate, focusing on software development would likely make our diversity problem worse.

      Also, I am not sure what you mean by not addressing employment and diversity simultaneously. I believe employment is exactly where we want to address diversity?

  2. On my initial reading, I wasn’t convinced by the modified petition (I think the slightly awkward phrasing of ‘non-paper research object’ put me off; the original ‘software’ is more catchy). But on a second reading, I agree with your modifications. All research objects are important and the SSI should recognise that (data is important for making/testing good software!), and software/data education and reproducibility are certainly linked.

    I agree that it makes no sense to tackle the issue of creating full time software developer roles in academia separately from the issue of creating full time roles for *any* scientists in academia. That’s a separate issue from the diversity of software developers though, and I think you’ll have trouble convincing people who want to hire software developers that these things should be tackled together, as they’ll just see themselves are hiring from the available pool. It’s probably possible to hire more software developers in science now, but getting those developers to be a diverse population will take longer :/

    I think encouraging all scientists to learn about data and code may help to make (scientific) software development more diverse, as it would hopefully engage people who didn’t have the opportunity to learn it earlier, or were discouraged. It would be great to have PIs who were willing to take on relatively inexperienced but motivated scientists who wanted to get into software development roles, and I think this would encourage diversity, but I also think this would only happen in the context of temporary, postdoc-like, jobs.

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