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Dutch software engineers join campaign for research funding

Software researchers from all over Europe are sounding the alarm: to maintain a strong international competitive position, more financial resources must be committed to software research

Tijs van der Storm, software engineering researcher at Centrum voor Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI), the Netherlands’ national research institute for mathematics and computer science, and part-time professor of software engineering at the University of Groningen, has written a pamphlet drawing urgent attention to the visibility of, and need for, research into software quality 

Van der Storm recently became chairman of Versen, the Dutch association for software engineering. Shortly before he took office, the association wrote a manifesto for the Netherlands public emphasising the importance of software and research into its quality. “Then it turned out that there were similar initiatives in France and Finland,” he said, “so in order to address this important issue at a European level, I wrote a short pamphlet with our common message and we also attached a petition to it.” 

That petition has now been signed by more than 800 top researchers, industry leaders and software experts from all over Europe. “We then presented the petition to policy-makers, the European Commission, Members of Parliament and other stakeholders in Europe and our own countries,” said Van der Storm. “For example, I sent the document to the state secretary for digitisation and the NWO [the Netherlands organisation for scientific research].”

Although a meeting is planned soon with the NWO, which funds top researchers, gives direction to Dutch science through programmes and manages (inter)national knowledge infrastructure, there has been little response from the rest of Europe. “That could still come, of course,” said Van der Storm. “We have only just disseminated it. In any case, the media have picked up on it and that has already generated more visibility.”

Complexity and volume 

One of Versen’s goals is to ensure that the European Union’s funding instruments pay explicit attention to software quality. “In the European research programme Horizon Europe, you see the current major technology trends, such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence [AI],” said Van der Storm. “Actually, we as software engineering want to be among them.”

After all, the basis of all new technology is software, he added. “And not only new technology. Software is to society what oxygen is to life. It is a driving force of the world we live in. There is almost no aspect of society that is not facilitated by software.” 

The complexity and total volume of software continues to increase exponentially. Software is omnipresent, but it remains extremely difficult to construct and maintain software efficiently, and to guarantee its correctness, reliability and performance. So it is all the more striking that investments in the field of software research in the Netherlands and Europe lag behind influential tech countries such as China and the US.  

“Software is to society what oxygen is to life. It is a driving force of the world we live in”
Tijs van der Storm, CWI

Europe has been at the forefront with many innovations in software, such as Linux and Python, but is now risks falling behind the curve, said Van der Storm. “We have achieved important results in software in the Netherlands and Europe, but they are less visible.”

That is the big challenge in his field, said Van der Storm. “Software development has an image problem. I sometimes compare it with plumbing. Nobody wants to think about the sewers, but it is crucial that they work well, otherwise it will be a mess. It is not a very sexy subject, which is partly due to the invisibility of software in society. Most people can’t grasp it, which makes it difficult.”

But it is crucial to recognise the importance of software quality, he emphasised. “If you don’t ensure the quality of software, then you will have big problems in the future.”

At the same time, it is also true that if Europe does not invest in software engineering itself, we will become increasingly dependent on big tech companies in the US and China. That has far-reaching consequences for, among other things, the competitive position of European companies and privacy.  

Simplify and reduce 

“Software quality is very important,” said Van der Storm, who gave the example of an average hybrid car: “It already contains about 150 million lines of source code. The expectation is that this will increase to 500 million lines of code in self-driving cars. And with self-driving cars, you can imagine that reliability is extremely important.

“That is what makes software development so complex. Many people don’t care about the numbers, but as an expert, I get quite nervous at 50 million lines of code.” 

Also, software has to be maintained and updated, said Van der Storm. It is inevitable that there are defects in software code – after all, it is still human work. Estimates say that, on average, code has between 15 and 50 errors per 1,000 lines of code. “We read about the consequences of that in the newspapers almost every day when organisations get compromised,” he pointed out. 

Therefore, according to Van der Storm, it is important to intervene in the complexity and volume of software in order to ensure its quality. That is what his research at the University of Groningen focuses on – how to make better programming languages and how to make programming languages better. By developing better programming languages, software can be made drastically simpler and smaller.

“You can already see this happening with low-code and no-code platforms, some of which are developed in the Netherlands,” he said. “These are things that can bring about a substantial reduction in maintenance and complexity, but it has not yet been sufficiently researched and doesn’t yet apply to every problem. My research focuses, among other things, on the development of customised programming languages to simplify and reduce software development.”

“Software should not be a forgotten child, but the foundation on which our current world is built. It is therefore crucial that software is of good quality and future-proof”
Tijs van der Storm, CWI

And to make such research possible, funding must be made available. Not easy, because not everyone understands what it is about and why software quality is so important. “Take C-level managers in government – they often do not have a deep understanding of software, yet they decide about many aspects of the digitisation of our society,” said Van der Storm.

That is why creating awareness among people in the European Union and Parliament is important, he said. “Software should not be a forgotten child, but the foundation on which our current world is built. It is therefore crucial that software is of good quality and future-proof.”

More companies should also recognise this, said Van der Storm. “There are so many organisations that do something with software or build software themselves, but do not yet realise how important it is to invest in quality and good software techniques. They could make a contribution through funding programmes. We already see a similar construction in the field of AI. In this way, companies can finance the necessary research.”

Importance of software quality 

Van der Storm hopes the focus on software and the crucial importance of its quality will gain recognition in the coming years. “I hope that, in a few years’ time, there will be an explicit focus on software engineering in the future visions of the Netherlands and Europe,” he said. “That would be quite a feat, if the policy-makers recognise its importance.”

Versen is also working to put software engineering on the map in the Netherlands via other means, he said. “Through the Dutch Digital Delta, the government’s advisory body on ICT that advises on our country’s science agenda, we want to get software engineering accepted as a key enabling technology.”

Hopefully, this will make policy-makers more aware of the importance of software engineering and, for example, invest in training more talent, said Van der Storm. “The world is crying out for developers, but there is still far too little attention being paid to programming and other ICT skills at all levels of education in our country.” 

It seems like a long haul, but is definitely necessary, said Van der Storm. “If we as a country and Europe want to remain relevant in the world, we really need to start investing in software research and engineering now.”

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