Schmidt Futures and Leading Research Universities Launch Software Engineering Centers to Accelerate Scientific Discovery

January 18, 2022

Inaugural partners include the University of Cambridge, Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University and University of Washington

Research software engineers will bridge the gap between modern science and scalable complex software

01/18/2022 – Schmidt Futures announced today the establishment of the Virtual Institute of Scientific Software (VISS), starting with a network of four inaugural centers based at the University of Cambridge, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington. This interdisciplinary virtual institute will address the growing demand for software engineers with backgrounds in science, complex-data and mathematics who can build dynamic, scalable, open software to facilitate accelerated scientific discovery across fields. 

While science has become increasingly reliant on complex programming and technology, the majority of researchers lack the training or experience in software engineering, tools and methods to produce effective, reliable, and scalable solutions. As a result, successful research and scientific discovery is sometimes delayed as researchers looking to conduct further experiments struggle to adapt unstable and outdated programming. VISS seeks to improve the quality of research, accelerate advancements and encourage scalable open source solutions by providing scientific researchers with access to full-time professional engineers and state of the art technology to develop high quality, maintainable and adaptable software.

“Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Institute for Scientific Software is a core part of our efforts to mobilize exceptional talent to solve specific hard problems in science and society,” said Elizabeth Young McNally, Executive Vice President of Schmidt Futures. “Development of robust, well-engineered software is a critical public service when the software supports projects to make the world better.”

“Through its software development for science, VISS will accelerate the pace of scientific discovery by supporting longer term platforms and systems, encouraging best practices in open science, and providing access to techniques such as high-end computing, massive databases, and machine learning,” added Stuart Feldman, Chief Scientist at Schmidt Futures.

Each Software Center will be run by a major research university chosen by Schmidt Futures, and will collaborate closely with Schmidt Futures’ network of Virtual Institutes, currently focused on the areas of Earth Science and Astrophysics, and projected to grow this year into areas like Advanced Computing and Manufacturing. Additional university faculty projects may also be supported. Each Center will be composed of a Faculty Director, Center Engineering Lead, and a robust team of Research Software Engineers (RSEs) and computational scientists, to be selected by the partner universities. RSEs, highly qualified software experts with an interest in working on science research projects, will work closely with university researchers to design and implement platform-grade code to be utilized and expanded over several years. The Software Center at the University of Cambridge will apply its existing expertise in climate sciences and artificial intelligence with the research teams from Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Earth Systems Research Institute (VESRI) to address the specific computation and research software needs in the area of climate modeling. The other three Centers will be dedicated to a range of scientific focus areas, including astrophysics, life sciences, engineering and climate. 

Representatives from participating universities weighed in with the following:

“With this truly visionary new institute, Cambridge will blend its world-leading climate science, software engineering and computer science expertise,” said Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. “This interdisciplinary powerhouse will enable the development of next-generation climate models. We are delighted to be partnering with Schmidt Futures and engaging with the international research community to inform the response to our most urgent global challenge.”

“The University of Washington has been a pioneer in data science, demonstrating that software and algorithms don’t just speed up scientific research, they also change the questions we can ask,” said Dr. David Beck, Research Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington and Director of Research and Education and Senior Data Science Fellow at the UW eScience Institute. “We are very excited to partner with Schmidt Futures in this next step to bring professional software engineering expertise to campus and lift promising prototype scientific codes developed at the UW and around the world over the technical barriers that limit their scaling, deployment and community adoption.”

“Software is increasingly the dominant investment in modern science and engineering projects. Many of our major science projects start from petabytes of data and use approaches such as deep neural networks to find new patterns, develop new insights, and identify promising paths forward,” said Sunil Kumar, Provost of Johns Hopkins University. “The VISS is a highly innovative experiment to introduce professional software engineering principles into academic science and engineering projects, and Johns Hopkins is tremendously excited to be a critical part of this future-shaping endeavor.”

“We are very proud to host one of the four inaugural Schmidt Futures Virtual Institute of Scientific Software centers. Georgia Tech’s center will advance and support scientific research by applying modern software engineering practices, cutting-edge technologies, and modern tools to the development of scientific software. The center will also engage with students and researchers to train the next generation of software engineering leaders.” said Charles Isbell, John P. Imlay, Jr. Dean of the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology

The interdisciplinary network of centers, which will benefit from the experience of the Schmidt Software Academy at Caltech, will have an initial lifespan of five years.  Centers will execute projects independently but Schmidt Futures will help coordinate across the Centers and manage the sourcing of the projects.

About Schmidt Futures

Schmidt Futures bets early on exceptional people making the world better. Founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, Schmidt Futures is a philanthropic initiative that creates public value from private philanthropy through risk transfer—showing that brilliant people in networks can solve hard problems in science and society by connecting across fields, competing and challenging ideas, bringing multiple types of capital to bear, and applying science and technology thoughtfully through tools such as AI.