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How Do Scientists Really Use Computers?

A Web-based survey offers clues

Greg Wilson

Helping Those Who Need It

Our results can be interpreted in many ways, but I think two things are clear. The first is that if funding agencies, vendors and computer science researchers really want to help working scientists do more science, they should invest more in conventional small-scale computing. Big-budget supercomputing projects and e-science grids are more likely to capture magazine covers, but improvements to mundane desktop applications, and to the ways scientists use them, will have more real impact.

My second conclusion is that we’re not doing nearly enough to teach scientists how to use computers effectively as research tools. One reason for this failure is that commercial software development tools and practices often don’t fit the needs of people doing exploratory research in domains where years of training are required to understand the problems being solved. At the same time, university science and engineering departments feel their curricula are already overfull. As a physicist said to me some years ago, “What should we take out to make room for more programming—thermodynamics or quantum mechanics?” Figuring out how to square these circles is, in my opinion, the only grand challenge in scientific computing that really matters.


This work was made possible by a grant from The MathWorks, Inc. I’d like to thank my co-investigators, as well as Jon Pipitone and Laurel Duquette, who helped with data coding and analysis.


  • Hannay, Jo Erskine, Hans Petter Langtangen, Carolyn MacLeod, Dietmar Pfahl, Janice Singer and Greg Wilson. 2009. “How Do Scientists Develop and Use Scientific Software?” In Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Software Engineering for Computational Science and Engineering. New York: IEEE Press.

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