Ex-Google Chief’s Venture Aims To Save Neglected Science Software

David Matthews writes via Nature: See whether this sounds familiar: you build a piece of software to solve a research question. But when you move on to the next project, there's no one to maintain it. As it ages, it becomes obsolete, and the next academic to tackle a similar problem finds themselves having to reinvent the wheel. [...] Now, a funding initiative hopes to help ease that burden. [...] In January, Schmidt Futures, a science and technology-focused philanthropic organization founded by former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, launched the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software (VISS), a network of centers across four universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Each institution will hire around five or six engineers, says Stuart Feldman, Schmidt Futures' chief scientist, with funding typically running for five years and being reviewed annually. Overall, Schmidt Futures is putting US$40 million into the project, making it among the largest philanthropic investments in this area. The aim is to overcome a culture of relative neglect in academia for open-source scientific software, Feldman says, adding that support for software engineering is "a line item, just like fuel" at organizations such as NASA. "It's only in the university research lab environment where this is ancillary," he says. [...] Those setting up VISS centers say Schmidt Futures' steady, relatively long-term funding will help them to overcome a range of problems endemic to academic software. Research grants rarely provide for software development, and when they do, the positions they fund are seldom full-time and long-term. "If you've got all of this fractional effort, it's really hard to hire people and provide them with a real career path," says Andrew Connolly, an astronomer who is also helping to set up the Washington centre. What's more, software engineers tend to be scattered and isolated across a university. "Peer development and peer community is really important to those types of positions," says Stone. "And that would be extraordinarily rare in academia." To counter this, VISS centers hope to create cohesive, stable teams that can learn from one another. [...] Dario Taraborelli, who helps to coordinate another privately funded scientific-software project at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) in California, says that such initiatives fill a key gap in the scientific-software ecosystem, because funding agencies too often fail to prioritize crucial software infrastructure. Although there are now "substantial" grants dedicated to creating software, he says, there's precious little funding available to maintain what is built. Computer scientist Alexander Szalay, who is helping to set up a VISS centre at Johns Hopkins, agrees, noting that very few programs get to a point where enough researchers use and update them to remain useful. "They don't survive this 'Valley of Death,'" he says. "The funding stops when they actually develop the software prototype."

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