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BCS says software for scientific modelling needs standards


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Computer code behind the scientific modelling of epidemics such as Covid-19 should meet independent professional standards, according to BCS, The Chartered Instituted for IT.

It has published a policy paper calling for the adoption of such standards and for the code in the modelling to be made open source.

This comes from a belief that the lack of software development standards in scientific research has helped to undermine confidence in computational modelling. It also reflects questions over the success of the UK’s modelling to predict and manage the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The paper says the BCS welcomes the Government’s use of computational modelling, but that the quality of the software used appears to rely too much on scientists without a computing background, and is prone to suffer from not following computer engineering best practice.

Dr Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, said: “The politicisation of the role of computer coding in epidemiology has made it obvious that our understanding and use of science relies as much on the underlying code as on the underlying research.

“We welcome the Government’s commitment to following science in developing policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. We support the use of computational modelling in exploring possible outcomes of policy decisions, such as investigating which lockdown measures are likely to have the greatest public health benefits.

“At the same time we consider that - at present - the quality of the software implementations of scientific models appear to rely too much on the individual coding practices of the scientists (who are not computer scientists) who develop them, rather than professional software development practices being publicly evidenced against appropriate standards.”

Stakeholder effort

In response, the BCS – which runs a number of accreditation schemes for IT professionals – said it plans to approach key stakeholders to discuss how to develop a more professional approach to software development in scientific research. Bodies it aims to engage with include NHSX, Public Health England, the Cabinet Office, the Alan Turing Institute and the Royal Society.

The paper adds: “We also call upon those scientists who are working so hard and doing vitally important work in the current circumstances to engage with the relevant computer science specialists to ensure that they receive all of the benefits that best practice software development can provide to their work.

BCS pointed to a number of benefits it believed can be achieved through such an approach. These include improving the ability of science research groups to share and build upon modelling software implementations, reproducing research findings more effectively and reassuring the public that policy decisions are based on high quality evidence.

Image from iStock, SolarSeven

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