The power of software to drive innovation

Posted by Dr Christopher Woods on 29 January 2018

As I sit here in my hotel I wonder how writing software has enabled me to visit China...

Academics are supposed to not know how to write software. Certainly, that was true for me when I started coding as a PhD student. Back then I wrote software that, while still used by people, I find personally embarrassing. The much younger me programmed without a care in the World. I wrote computer programs without any testing or planning, and produced software that "worked", but that was quirky and difficult for others to use, and certainly not something that anyone should ever pay for.

Today, always learning from my past mistakes, I am now a firm advocate of test-driven software development and professional software design and maintenance. So why am I now in China? Well, it all started when a British software company called Cresset became interested in what I was writing. My code, called "Sire" is a set of building blocks that lets researchers rapidly prototype new ways of modelling proteins and other biomolecules. It is now used thousands of times a month by people all over the World. Cresset contacted me as they wanted to use Sire to help power part of their computer-aided small molecule design package called "Flare". Of course I agreed. The overarching goal of my research career is to produce new ideas and new software that will bring real benefit to society. Flare is now very successful, and I am proud to know that something I produced as an EPSRC-funded researcher is helping a British company to prosper.

So, what has this got to do with China? Well, my contact at Cresset was visiting a Professor friend of his. The Chinese Professor wanted to find an international speaker for a conference on International Supercomputing and Biopharmaceutical Innovation, and my name was suggested. Such is the way of academia that I only managed to arrange everything at the last minute. After hurried emails, promises that the Chinese hosts would pay for everything and give me a tour of Tianhe-2, the second fastest supercomputer in the world, and two quick trips to London for an express Chinese visa, here I am.

Sharing good practice

So, what will I say when faced with the academics, journalists and assorted dignitaries at the conference? That the UK is inward looking and consumed by Brexit? No, of course not! I am pleased that I will be able to say that the UK is leading the world in its recognition of the importance of software and its power to drive innovation. I will stand as an example of how professional software development practices are embraced and rewarded in UK universities. Through initiatives from the EPSRC and Software Sustainability Institute, a new breed of academic, called the Research Software Engineer, is raising the standard of excellence of UK research software. As an EPSRC Research Software Engineering Fellow, I travel all over the world advocating for good practice and teaching hundreds of researchers a year how to write software professionally.

Today, I jointly-chair a >500 member UK Research Software Engineering Association. Together, we are raising the quality, adaptability, applicability and trustability of research software. We jointly make software both more able to tackle society's biggest problems, and more readily commercialisable and exportable by UK companies. I will show screenshots from Cresset's Flare as an example, hoping of course that the Chinese will consider purchasing it for their burgeoning pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries. I will also talk about how we in the UK use software and hardware to innovate. I will use, as example, both EPSRC's recent investment in the ARM-powered Isambard supercomputer that is led by Bristol, and will show the proliferation of high-tech semiconductor and software companies that are concentrated in the Bristol area.

Software is the driver of innovation

Altogether, I hope that the audience will enjoy my talk. I hope that the message, that everything is software, and that software is the driver of innovation, is understood. I hope that new partnerships are formed, and that my hosts see Britain as a dynamic and forward-looking country. The place to come to if you want an education in research software engineering, and the place to invest if you want to innovate using high quality research software.

Most importantly, I want others in the UK to know that this is happening. We are great at software. We are great at innovation. Writing good software is valuable, and it can take you around the World. If you write good, tested, usable code, then you won't have to wonder how writing software can enable you to visit China.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Christopher Woods on the Sun Yat-Sen University Campus
Name: Dr Christopher Woods
Job title: Research Software Engineer
Department: Advanced Computing Research Centre
Organisation: University of Bristol

Christopher Woods is an EPSRC Research Software Engineering Fellow who leads the Research Software Engineering group at the University of Bristol. His background is in the development of new software for computational chemistry and biomolecular modelling. He is now a passionate advocate for improving the quality of research software, and driving the recognition and promotion of research software engineering careers.