How Should Astronomy Pay For Software?

So asked Frossie Enonomou at ADASS XXIV in Calgary, October 2014.  She gave her view of the answer to this question. It’s not of course about paying for software, but about paying people to write software.  Generally speaking, it’s not faculty who write the software, but, to quote Frossie:

  • People drawn from long-lived and/or multi-mission institutions – Funding in decline
    – Limited longevity even within such institutions
  • People coming from the private sector
    – We can’t compete in pay
    – We increasingly can’t compete on culture
  •  Postdocs (and similar) on soft money

Software is invariably written on soft money, and Frossie points out this model has all kinds of consequences:

  • No sustained, strategic development
  • Software is an afterthought on bigger grants
  • No technical assessment = no reward for success
  • No post-grant evaluation = no penalty for failure
  • Soft money has displaced other funding models

So how do we write top-class, sustainable software on soft money? Making code Open Source is one part of the solution – it encourages community participation, for one thing. Frossie suggested two new approaches as well: exploiting the AAS- WGAS and adopting the LSST model.

Let’s look at WGAS first. WGAS is the newly revitalized  AAS Working Group on Astronomical Software, whose goals are “to promote the interests of AAS members developing astronomical software, and to support the advancement of astronomical research through open-source software collaboration.” Frossie is the new chair, and she is organizing its efforts around a set of special interests groups. There are two proposed so far: Publication, to promote software sharing, publishing and preservation; and Common Technologies, to support the development and dissemination of APIs, libraries, formats and standards undertaken within the WGAS community. If you are a software engineer and are concerned about proper recognition for software, sign-up on GitHub at AAS-WGAS and get involved. I have joined up.

LSST has been described as a massive computing technology project with a telescope attached.  Frossie makes these points as to why a project like this is a good model for software development:

  • Software a primary mission component
  • Long horizon
  • Public software products
  • Open Source development model
  • Software re-use internally and externally
  • High level of external oversight from NSF

Frossie ended by re-iteratng the importance of Open Source, the need for overall ability to trump specific skills, the need for mentoring, a commitment to sustainability, all underpinned by an evolving set of best practices.

I wish to thank Ms. Frossie Economou for generously making her presentation available.

This entry was posted in agile development, astroinformatics, Astronomy, Career Advice, careers, Computing, cyberinfrastructure, High performance computing, History of Computing!, informatics, information sharing, jobs, LSST, Open Access, Open Source, programming, Scientific computing, social media, social networking, software engineering, software maintenance, software sustainability, user communities and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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