Astronomical Software in 2017 and Beyond

At the end of 2016, I took on the role of Chair of the Working Group for Astronomical Software (WGAS) in the American Astronomical Society (AAS), attempting to fill in the unfillable shoes of Frossie Economou. I’m honored to be asked to take on this role, and I hope I live up to the expectations of the society and its members.

Below, I’ve outlined a few of the things I want to prioritize in the WGAS; they can be summarized as the problems of recognition and domain specificity. Having these discussions occur in the context of an AAS-recognized working group provides the opportunity to leverage the membership of AAS and to present findings to the AAS Council, where they can help shape policy. I see the WGAS as an instrument of social change in our professional society.

I’ll say this again at the end, but I want to make sure this is up front: if you have an interested in how the professional society views and interacts with software, software developers, and how software factors into the research lifecycle, I invite you to engage with WGAS. You can do this by contacting me directly at matthewturk@gmail.com or by joining the public discussion group I’ve created.

This last week at AAS229, I had the opportunity to hear from many different people about their ideas on how software is and should be viewed in the AAS. In particular, I was able to speak at some length with Julie Steffen, Frank Timmes, Kelle Cruz, David Hogg and Erik Tollerud, and we spoke about the role that WGAS may play in the next few years for the AAS, especially as the Astro2020 review begins. I also sat in on the open portion of the AAS Council meeting, where I learned a considerable amount about how the council operates, how decisions are made, and its interaction with the society. I highly recommend attending one of these meetings.

Where Are We?

I’ll be honest: I was tempted to start this section with a sentence that breaks the record for most cliched, “Science is becoming increasingly software-driven.” As with many cliches, though, this is true.

Astronomers use software to drive telescopes, to take data, to reduce that data, to conduct subsequent analysis of that data, and even to share the results of their data. On the computational side, astronomers use software to run simulations, analyze the results of those simulations, and visualize the output. Theorists use software as well, to explore analytical and semi-analytical results.

And I’m sure I just missed some category or use of software. The point is, it’s everywhere, and it is used at essentially every stage of the research pipeline, even before any data has been taken.

Software is critical for the continued growth of astronomy as a scientific endeavor. This includes the sustenance of existing software, the development of new software, stewarding software as it grows through its lifecycle, and identifying strategies to improve efficiency of the field as a whole. Ivelina Momcheva and Erik Tollerud explore this in depth in their 2015 paper.

Zero of those items occur in a vacuum. Software is not a raw commodity; software is an intellectual product created by people.

People

People are hard. They don’t really have unit tests, continuous integration is expensive, version control is still an open issue, and they’re woefully susceptible to denial of service attacks.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the last few years studying and participating in discussions about sustainability of scholarly software; groups such as WSSSPE, NumFOCUS, SSI, and many others have held workshops, collected position papers and organized scholarly discourse around this topic. While I am versed in this material, I won’t pretend to be an expert — but I do know the right people to ask.

Usually the discussions revolve around a few different points: sustainability (a term I use in an intentionally generic fashion here), funding, credit, and careers. All of these are somewhat intertwined, and often take on different meanings depending on the specific conversation, participants and so on that are having the discussion.

At some level, these questions can essentially all be reduced to the notion of recognizing software as an intellectual product in the scholarly discourse.

The WGAS has the opportunity to advocate for recognition of software as a primary intellectual product in the astronomical sciences.

Recognition Cuts Both Ways

Let’s imagine for a moment that credit is a zero-sum game. (It’s not.) Imagine it as a pie. When you divide up credit for any given scientific discovery, you have to figure out who gets to have a piece of that pie; do you give a piece of pie to the person who wrote the software, as well as the person who took the data? I believe that the answer is unequivocally yes; software is an intellectual contribution to this discovery.

This is a reductionist approach to thinking about the question, and furthermore it is damaging in that it approaches the research process as a closed system.

I posit that if the WGAS is successful in bringing about social change, we should envision this as not only “giving a slice of pie” to the software developers, but increasing the number and the diversity of those doing the software development.

Recognition of importance ensures that there is credit given for the work done. It also mandates that this work not be done by volunteer effort. This is critically important, as any time we rely on volunteer effort, on unpaid labor, we select against inclusivity and diversity. For a deep dive into this, I highly recommend Ashe Dryden’s post the Ethics of Unpaid Labor.

This is a critical problem. If we do not recognize the intellectual contribution of software, we will not put into place systems to ensure that its development relies on volunteer effort. This has the dual effect of both exploiting those able to provide volunteer effort and selecting against those whose situations inhibit volunteer effort.

I believe that working with communities focused on sustainability to identify approaches and strategies to sustaining astronomical software and the people who write it is a critical goal for the WGAS and the society as a whole. Without thinking about the necessary social change, throwing funding is a stop-gap that serves to reinforce existing credit and reward structures.

Next Steps

I’ve identified a few top priority agenda items to get things moving.

  • An open call for input, ideas, and discussion around a software-related white paper for the decadal review. This is something that we absolutely have to get right, and that means ensuring that viewpoints from a wide cross-section of the community.
  • Bidirectional communication: Part of the role of the WGAS is in giving presentations to the AAS Council on the current state and future directions, but I also believe we need to build a dialogue with the Society and its members, ensuring that they are kept apprised and asked for input on relevant issues. This includes people involved in pipeline development, infrastructure, observation, theory, and computational astronomy.

If you are interested in participating in this discussion or the working group, please contact me directly at matthewturk@gmail.com, or join the Google Group I have created for this purpose.

This isn’t the end of the work — in fact, I would like to see a number of tasks (ranging in levels-of-ambition) accomplished through the WGAS. But I hope it’s a good start.

Thanks to Jeff Oishi and Gus Muench for comments on this post.