Authors: Arianna Ciula, Paul Caton, and Pam Mellen
This blogpost aims to present the Mission and Activities document produced by King’s Digital Lab (KDL) in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Humanities (King’s College London) senior management in 2022.
Background and scope
The document is the result of a light review process spurred by the Faculty to restate KDL’s mission and its “doing, enabling and planning” activities (inclusive of operational overheads and Research Services Catalogue). While the document is specific to KDL and mainly fulfils the internal function to communicate our remit to stakeholders and allocate resources, it is useful to see it framed within the Research Software Engineering (RSE) context (e.g. DOI 10.1109/MS.2020.2973362) as well as similar efforts and good practices initiated by other RSE hubs across the country (e.g. Newcastle University, University College London, Alan Turing Institute, University of Edinburgh) and beyond.
The main scope of this blogpost and associated talk at the RSE 2023 conference is to foreground the agency RSE teams can exercise in defining and reviewing mission and activities following an engineering ethos. The aim is also to showcase how such an exercise can contribute to navigating challenges related to conflicting pressures for RSE teams, while striving for alignment to institutional strategies and responses to other external factors (e.g. funding, policies). The objective is to inspire discussions on the mechanisms via which the significance of RSE contribution to a research-intensive Higher Education Institution (HEI) can be communicated and adapted responsibly.
In September 2021 KDL had the first change in team line management with the founding director, James Smithies, leaving the role. This was an opportunity for senior management and research leadership of the faculty of Arts and Humanities where KDL is embedded to reflect on its core mission and activities and make them more explicit for internal communication and resources allocation. The then-Vice Dean of External Relations of the Faculty, Graeme Earl, was also academic Director of KDL and worked with then-Acting Director of KDL, Arianna Ciula, to draft such a document and have it approved. Following a few cycles of reviews, the final structure of the document is as following:
- KDL Mission
- Contributions to grant-funded project with significant technical requirements
- Operational Overhead
- Research Services Catalogue
- College Contributions
Mission, Resources Allocation and Primary Value
A clear vision, mission and range of services is useful not only for a large and well resourced RSE team operating across nations and domains such as the EPCC based at the University of Edinburgh but also for smaller embedded teams that are either in their consolidation phases (such as KDL), scaling up or in fact emerging into the RSE landscape and in need of a strategy to communicate their values and ambitions, guide operations and set expectations.
The KDL mission section overview sets the scene as following:
KDL is a Research Software Engineering (RSE) laboratory in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities (A&H) charged with enabling and delivering high quality digital research. The core market for these research services is A&H researchers. For this reason, it works in collaboration with the A&H research leadership (A&H Research), through the activities led by the PVD [Pro Vide Dean] Research Culture and the PVD Impact & Knowledge Exchange. KDL also works externally, both elsewhere in the College (in particular via King’s e-Research and the Arts & Sciences Research Office) and outside the College, to enable and deliver digital research.
King's Digital Lab Mission & Activities 2022-25
KDL provides a focus in the College for arts and humanities RSE. KDL research software engineers “work with researchers to gain an understanding of the problems they face and then develop, maintain and extend software to provide the answers”, informed by a critical understanding both of the technologies and of arts and humanities scholarship. This has proven value both within A&H and beyond, particularly in terms of contributions to REF and A&H’s ability to attract external research funding.
King's Digital Lab Mission & Activities 2022-25
The mission section also clarifies that KDL’s “primary value and market position lie in its contributions to high quality grant-funded projects with significant technical requirements”.
These contributions account for core RSE expertise across projects’ lifecycles, from pre-grant analysis and support to analysis, design, development, contribution to research outputs, maintenance (covered by Service Level Agreements) and project management of funded projects. This inclusive definition is in line with reflections in the RSE community which sees “Maintainability, sustainability, and robustness” as “core aspects of building quality software that form part of [….] software development” RSE primary pillar.
It also highlights the importance of RSE expertise in contributing to research outputs whether of narrative nature, such as conference papers and articles, or in other RSE-specific modes of publication such as documented software modules or pipelines, versioned and citable datasets and accessible data visualizations.
Last but not least, in line with how other RSE teams such as the Advanced Research Computing Centre at University College London define collaboration, RSE expertise is considered fundamental in the process that leads to a well-informed and robust research funding application where the technical requirements are integral to the research process. Indeed, this document clarifies that RSE contribution to pre-grant analysis and design phases start at early concept definition and evolve via subsequent iterative phases documented in our Agile-DSDM aligned project templates:
Contributing to grant applications (including technical documentation required by the relevant funding scheme such as data management plans); eliciting requirements and producing terms of reference, feasibility assessment, high level solution architecture, paths to sustainability and product quotes.
King's Digital Lab Mission & Activities 2022-25
Once the project is funded and starts, the set of templates are used in combination with our project management tool (currently ClickUp), Github code repository, document management system (currently Microsoft SharePoint), and other HR, finance and research management tools adopted by the University (such as Worktribe and KORDS, an instance of Figshare) to document and monitor “technical analysis, design, development and project management” during the whole project lifecycle including post-project maintenance and decommissioning. While there are inevitable important variations due to team’s expertise and scope, in this sense KDL’s way of working is comparable to larger multi-disciplinary RSE teams such as the Alan Turing Research Engineering Group which has also outlined explicitly its contribution to project lifecycles starting from project scoping and moving into subsequent phases of operations.
In 2021 KDL became a TRAC-listed research facility (costed per the "Facility Rate" methodology). Following this transparent financial modelling makes it possible for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities to also “allocate modest amounts of resources to non-grant-funded activities described as its Research Services Catalogue (RSC)”.
The document goes on to describe priorities in capacity allocation in the following order:
High quality grant funded projects with colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Part of yearly Business Planning Round – target volume of work is defined via yearly funding strategy proposed by KDL – first plan dates back to 2017 – and socialised with and approved by Faculty.
Research Services Catalogue Activities
Include technical consultancy, development, peer review, archiving and sustainability, and increasing staff capabilities.
Funded projects with external partners
Target volume for this is also set and monitored via yearly KDL funding strategy.
While KDL has stable mechanisms to plan and monitor targets for 1 and 3, 2 is managed on a more ad hoc basis. This allows for flexibility but at times can cause frustration and issues around demand.
Commercial consultancy can also be offered by KDL; however, the document clarifies that this is not a primary activity for the lab and it “cannot lead to an overshoot in TRAC billable hours”.
The Operational Overheads section of the document might be informative for newly established RSE teams as it outlines what in business terms would be defined mainly as enabling activities – in other words, it defines what areas of investment might be necessary to consider for a research lab to operate, to deliver high quality products and to incubate innovation in addressing research challenges or achieving research impact while fostering personal development, keeping team members motivated and networked in the wider RSE and other relevant communities.
Including Finance, HR and governance (including A&H committees).
Enabling a secure project infrastructure
For grant-funded and commercial projects built by KDL. This includes liaison with IT and eResearch.
Optimising business processes
KDL undertakes a series of internal process improvement activities (e.g. from design workflow integration to pipeline planning and research into sustainable methods) and external networking (e.g. with RSE national and international communities) aimed at strengthening or expanding the Lab’s RSE practices to improve the quality of all KDL activities.
Marketing internally and externally of KDL’s expertise and services including digital and in-person activities. These marketing activities include activities such as general presentations to Faculty Research Committee or departments. This also includes marketing-focused contributions to academic, GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), heritage and creative and other industry conferences and workshops, and other networking and community building. Many other activities such as committee attendance and peer review indirectly market KDL.
KDL staff development and experimentation
Conducted as part of KDL team members’ 10% Time dedicated to RSE research and development, including basic and practice-based research leading to digital and traditional research outputs. This also includes contributions to academic, GLAM, heritage and creative and other industry conferences and workshops and other networking and community building.
A&H digital research and data awareness
In order to fulfil an effective role in supporting capacity around A&H digital research and data, and in signposting resources, KDL need to maintain an awareness of this across A&H. Much of this is achieved through other activities including RSE research and development and via the Research Services Catalogue but a small additional overhead is associated with maintaining this level of awareness.
While some of these activities, such as governance and management of human resources, are usually understood and recognised as default overheads, others – process improvement, marketing, outreach and 10% development, for example - are less so and, in KDL experience, useful to make explicit. Depending on scale of RSE operations, overheads can represent a substantial investment but in KDL experience are essential to deliver primary value in a HEI environment. What we describe in our workload model as lab development time can include resources to attend internal as well as reporting meetings, forecast pipeline and capacity planning, portfolio management and the finetuning of guidance in the use of associated tasks and information management tools. This work can represent a substantial investment for the consolidation phase of an RSE team as highlighted by others in the community. Currently, KDL is working at integrating internal projects data (used for reporting and daily tasks management) with projects data displayed publicly on our website, so as to improve monitoring methods and increase projects metadata quality. The challenge is however to keep prioritising funded projects work, while conducting such essential process improvement activities in the background. In this case a new website will be key to a leaner communication strategy.
The community element is recognised as another fundamental pillar of RSE – for different reasons, bigger or emerging RSE teams might want to invest in offering services to the community (e.g. via contribution to officers’ roles in professional societies and associations) and in dedicated knowledge exchange activities. It is not by chance that the hosting of the RSE Society UK annual conference by the University of Newcastle in September 2022 features as a prominent highlight in their RSE team yearly report.
As highlighted by others in the RSE community and recently also in relation to the Arts and Humanities RSE co-hort, continuing personal development (via training and research) and headspace for individual and collaborative experimentation are a sine qua non to enable innovative research, particularly in areas that are fast-growing such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. As presented at the RSE UK Society conference last year, developing RSE-driven research themes (currently active and emerging ones include Digital Creativity; Indigenous Digital Humanities; AI and Machine Learning) is one way to achieve this.
Research Services Catalogue
In this document and blogpost, following the UKRI vision that highly values Research Technology Professionals’ (RSEs included) contribution to research in a holistic manner, service is understood in a wide sense beyond access to specific platforms and tools to encompass a wide range of expertise as outlined above and as it will hopefully emerge further from what follows.
In line with other institutions’ work in making explicit what RSE expertise can offer, KDL Research Services Catalogue (RSC) section includes a range of other areas in which RSE expertise can make substantial if not transformative contributions:
- Internal Consultancy
- Digital Research and Data Capacity Development
- Peer Review of Grant Applications
- Archiving and Sustainability
- Increasing Capabilities in Arts & Humanities Staff
- Increasing Capabilities in Arts & Humanities Taught and Research Students
Without describing all RSC activities in detail, some descriptions and examples follow.
Advising A&H staff on (early) concept review
Advices on development, experience design, project design, technological evaluation, coding, data modelling, research methods, tool selection, including identification of third-party options. Many A&H departments include significant expertise in aspects of digital research and data in an A&H context but KDL maintains a broader overview and provides A&H RSE expertise. Their advice may in some cases be to contact other A&H experts, and potentially to become involved again later in the development of a research proposal as concrete RSE opportunities and requirements emerge.
Bookable drop-in slots
To meet and discuss ideas and problems with the team.
Co-organised workshops with departments
To elicit project ideas.
Data analysis and visualisations for impact data
Including standardising this approach in A&H where possible; signposting support for this where available elsewhere e.g. via the College.
Supporting access to King’s eResearch infrastructure for other uses and liaison to other relevant services across the College
E.g. data deposit via library services or hosting simple websites. KDL are not the required route for supporting A&H research data management or simple websites but provide a service where needed to complement others, at its simplest being signposting alone.
Such as exploration of new technologies and methods conducted as part of KDL team members’ 10% Time dedicated to RSE research and development aligned to colleagues' research elsewhere in A&H in order to support development of high-quality grant-funded projects with significant technical requirements.
In support of A&H and departmental strategies.
Digital Research and Data Capacity Development
Defining, contributing and promulgating appropriate quality standards
For digital research and data-centred outputs intended for REF, impact, and external relations purposes. This also includes any time associated with affiliation to a department or group.
Enabling development of heterogenous technologies
Using KDL, eResearch, and external infrastructure and resources.
Contribute to A&H’s research leadership
Informing digital research and data strategy
Archiving and Sustainability can include supporting long-term sustainability of research outcomes associated with A&H even if not covered by funded SLA; to manage this process, in 2020 KDL set up an SLA committee, currently chaired by the Head of Arts cluster in the Faculty, which reviews and approves KDL recommendations. As part of process improvement, criteria for this support have been refined in 2023 making this a more transparent process with clear responsibilities, costs and outcomes. Other RSE teams identify sustainability as an area to dedicate resources too; this might vary depending on scale of operations and research contexts. Legacy code, for example, is a challenge highlighted by the Newcastle RSE team's 2022 report; in the case of KDL, sustainability often entails the maintenance of full environments with public outfacing web sites and for this reason has become integral to our project lifecycles. While we made important steps to achieve this integration and streamlined the archiving process substantially in the last five years, commitment to continuous improvement translates into regular reviews of our processes which might make emerge the need to update specific project templates and documentation approaches accordingly.
Increasing Capabilities in A&H Staff can include professional development courses in relevant RSE areas such as Software Carpentry or dedicated masterclasses. As central e-Research provision grows within the College, this RSC activity will hopefully be refined further and managed more efficiently.
Increasing Capabilities in A&H Students can include guest lectures, supervision of interns and visiting students affiliated to A&H departments; the document clarifies that while KDL’s TRAC framework does not include standard educational activities, RSE expertise can support research-led education that aligns to KDL’s mission and in so doing increase the digital research capabilities across the A&H student body.
KDL team tracks time spent on all these activities; in particular, it has emerged that peer review of grants applications even when KDL is not involved directly as technical partner (e.g. because the technical requirements do not require RSE expertise or are not yet developed) has had very positive feedback from colleagues who were able to phase projects ideas and refine planning with respect to digital research strategy going forward (often involving KDL as technical partner in later phases of their project once data collection phases out and data processing and analysis become substantial).
While an optimal balance in allocating capacity for RSC activities is still far from being obtained, making this list explicit has certainly helped in identifying the team core remit as well as other areas of expertise that are secondary to KDL primary value and yet of potential benefit to enhance digital scholarship and software-intensive research. One area in particular where KDL RSE expertise might be subject to change is around contribution to educational offer, which is currently sporadic and based on ad hoc demand, but in the process of being reviewed as part of the Faculty and College educational strategies.
The document clarifies that KDL contributes to the College digital research and data strategy and operations indirectly via all its activities described above but can also provide specific inputs, for example via participation to relevant College committees (e.g. KCL AI Insitute) and working groups (whether at the operational level or to develop RSE-relevant policies), as well as development of digital research and data capacity via training or other means. Accounting for these contributions in explicit terms is another useful mechanism to benefit from RSE expertise in a holistic manner, account for workload and facilitate delegation within the team, but also, crucially, to manage demand and expectations.
To sum up...
RSE research facilities in HEI contexts are still emerging and consolidating their remit and operations. Sharing good practices while also highlighting challenges and lessons learned is a way for the community to mature and strengthen its identity. KDL Mission and Activities document is generic in its formulation so we hope it could be of interest to RSE units managers engaged in similar efforts of communicating what their units do or can do but also to RSE team members to negotiate their workload and resources allocation based on individual development plans and talents as well as RSE-driven (research, communication and funding) strategy.